Deaths, detainments mount as media environment worsens in South Sudan

Photo: A man carries a bag on his shoulder at the Internally Displaced People (IDP) camp at the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) base in Malakal early on March 19

JUBA, South Sudan – Joseph Deng received a call from a friend on March 8 saying that his 27-year-old son was lying in a cemetery. “He’s alive. Don’t go alone,” the friend warned. Deng’s son, a newspaper editor named Afandi Joseph, had been missing for four days. It was evening, around 9 pm, when the father rushed to the graveyard with his other son and a friend to find Afandi propped up against his backpack, half-conscious. He was covered in blood, fresh and red across his chest, and burned from the hips down, his trousers twisted into blackened flesh.

“It was fire everywhere,” Deng told CJR last month, patting his own legs up and down. He sat up tall, forehead wrinkled behind his glasses as he described how they’d carried Afandi to the hospital, feeding him mango juice while a doctor scooped melted skin and trouser from his legs. “I cannot see my son like this. There is nothing wrong with writing, or any job my children want to do,” Deng said.

We sat in Deng’s airless living room, the fan defunct from Juba’s electricity shortages, as the father spread a newspaper on the table. This was his son’s problem, Deng said: a column that criticized South Sudan’s ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. Afandi had published the column in the local newspaper where he worked, El Tabeer (translation: Expression), on December 23, 2015. A week later, members of the National Security Service, a government security service separate from the police, detained Afandi. He was kept incommunicado for months, his family unsure if he was alive until finally securing the connections to find and free him in February.

 

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South Sudan, the newest country in the world at just five years old, quickly has become one of the most dangerous places for journalists. At least seven journalists were killed there in 2015 alone, with no culprits identified or punished. The country dropped 15 places, to 140th, out of 180 countries in last year’s Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index, based on a survey of correspondents and advocacy groups who rank government efforts to ensure press freedom. The dire situation in South Sudan is particularly disappointing since South Sudan’s new constitution–one of the most progressive in Africa–promised state protection of press freedoms when the country gained its independence in 2011, with U.S. backing. There were high hopes of a free press as one of the critical institutions underpinning the fledgling nation.

In April, Vice President Riek Machar returned to Juba, ostensibly ending a civil war rife with mass rapes and atrocities against civilians that has killed more than 50,000 South Sudanese and displaced millions more. The new transitional government was supposedly a step toward implementing South Sudan’s transitional constitution and its promised press-freedom provisions in accordance with the peace process. Instead, the media environment has worsened since April. Security forces have temporarily detained at least 10 journalists, activists, and other government critics since late April, according to the Associated Press, while media intimidation cases nearly doubled in May compared to previous months.

“Stop writing,” Deng had told his son the first time he was released from detention, in February. Afandi agreed, and stayed home for four days before he was abducted again. This time, National Security Service denied knowing anything about the attackers, masked gunmen who had beaten Afandi while yelling in the Dinka tribal language, “What did you write about our president?” Afandi’s sister Lucia, who joined her father for the interview with CJR, pointed out that there was no mention of the president in her brother’s article. “They can’t or didn’t even read it,” she said.

“My son was just writing reality. People are tired, homeless, without food or drink,” said Deng, who sent his son to Kenya after a hospital released him following the second abduction and beating. Added Lucia: “The country as a whole is not safe.”

 

It is high time that this country has to grow, and it can’t if citizens aren’t informed.”

 

Paranoia is palpable on the streets of Juba. Photography in public spaces is illegal, so no one captures the long lines snaking behind gas stations as people wait for overpriced and scarce fuel. Private security guards grip their guns as they stand in crushing heat before every embassy, government office, UN compound, and hotel. Despite the supposed demilitarization, trucks filled with soldiers, outfitted in camouflage with Kalashnikovs slung across their shoulders, still rattle across the city.

Reporters hide their cameras and walk fast. “As a journalist you’re the eyes and ears of the country. What you see, you feel you should share,” says Akim Mugisa, a former reporter who is now Director of Marketing, Communications and Public Relations at radio station 88.4 City FM. “But authorities think you’re trying to challenge and taint the image of the government.”

When fighting first broke out in December 2013, Mugisa had been afraid to photograph in the streets. “If I aim the camera at someone, maybe they will aim the gun at me,” he says. But journalists did cover the conflict, and as they did, harassment intensified. In 2014, the Ministry of Information told journalists that interviewing rebels constituted “subversive activity,” and broadcasting such content would be considered “hostile propaganda” that was “in conflict with the law.” Numerous media houses that nevertheless spoke with opposition figures were shut down temporarily or for good, including the newspapers Nation Mirror, The Citizen, and Juba Monitor, as well as broadcast outlets Radio Bakhita, Free Voice, Voice of America, and Radio Tamazuj, which now operates from outside the country. Meanwhile, more and more journalists were detained, beaten, or killed.

“Balancing a story is not an offense or a mistake. It is professionalism,” Mugisa says. But many South Sudanese reporters have learned to self-censor, keeping to entertainment, health, and development stories rather than anything political. He himself has left reporting to work on the business side instead. “There’s no guarantee of safety,” Mugisa says. “You cannot be a good journalist when you are already dead.”

 

Anthony Mogga works for Free Voice, a Dutch nonprofit that produces radio programs on peace building, development, and civic education. In August 2015, National Security Service forced Free Voice to leave its compound, a broadcasting center shared with Voice of America. The last episode Mogga produced before the shutdown was on how civil society and media could become involved in political consultation. “All those stories worth telling are what the government doesn’t want to hear,” Mogga says. “They want to keep citizens uninformed so they can manipulate them. But they have to accept the reality that people govern, not the politicians.”

South Sudan’s authorities and civilians lack understanding of journalism and its role in civic education, Mogga said, a critical need as the country attempts to crawl out of civil war. Elections are coming in 2018, and many fear another outbreak of violence. Tribal loyalties and corrupt patronage systems dominate the political sphere, while the country hovers at the brink of financial disintegration with an illiteracy rate of more than 70 percent and nearly three million people at risk of starvation.

“People don’t know their role. They only know their orders, and that’s all,” Mogga says. “What matters now is that the media and government institutions both have to be built. It is high time that this country has to grow, and it can’t if citizens aren’t informed.”

International organizations are trying to help local journalists, but they don’t always grasp the severity of security risks. In one recent NGO training event, an international organization tried to improve media relations with the security sector by inviting members of the police and National Security to a workshop with journalists, said a South Sudanese reporter who wished to remain anonymous because of safety concerns. “If you want to teach humans how to protect themselves from lions, do you hold a workshop and release lions into the room?” the reporter asked.

Journalists in South Sudan have no functional or legal protection. Three media bills were introduced in 2007 and signed into law in 2014, but none have been implemented, leaving an effective legal vacuum where protection of press freedoms should be. The transitional constitution guarantees access to information under Article 32, but to little effect. Meantime, a 2015 law gives the National Security Service unlimited authority to arrest and detain suspects, monitor communication, conduct searches, and seize property without judicial oversight. “Whom can I report to? It doesn’t make sense. All the people supposed to give protection are targeting us,” Mogga says.

 

If you want to teach humans how to protect themselves from lions, do you hold a workshop and release lions into the room?”

 

In the Gudele suburbs on the outskirts of Juba, I met a colleague of Peter Moi, a journalist who was murdered in August 2015. Moi had been covering parliament with the journalist, who CJR spoke with on condition of anonymity since he fears for his safety. The journalist was one of the last people to see Moi on the night he was killed.

Moi had come to the journalist’s office three days after President Salva Kiir had publicly threatened South Sudan’s journalists, saying: “If anybody among [journalists] does not know that this country has killed people, we will demonstrate it one day, one time….Freedom of the press does not mean you work against the country.” Moi was picking up a recording of a parliamentary session he’d missed, and told the fellow journalist he wanted to quit political reporting.

The next morning, Moi was found dead with two bullets in his back. “By then, all journalists were afraid,” the journalist says. Reporters stopped wearing press vests on the street, columnists started altering their names, and Moi’s colleague began sleeping in different places. The man showed me his room: a small hut deliberately disheveled to look abandoned in case security forces come, though he still has a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights tacked onto the wall.

“I love journalism,” he said, telling me how he’d covered a story about people’s homes being flooded due to road construction. After his story ran, local authorities and NGOs had been pushed to help people recover their losses in the flooded neighborhood. “I exposed the crime. I saw something positive. I felt I had achieved something good.”

Now, he’s focusing on finding an alternative source of income on top of his journalism work. He tried to raise chickens at home, but neighbors complained. He’s started keeping bees for honey, and he already has 10 hives in his old village of Kajokeji. Journalism is not about making a living, he told me, but it’s not worth dying for, either. “If I reach 50 beehives, I’ll quit.”

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Alice Su is a freelance journalist based in Beijing, China, formerly in Amman, Jordan. Follow her on Twitter @aliceysu.