South Sudan is currently being racked by fighting between various rebel groups and government forces. The conflict is fuelled by the ethno-political tensions following the December 2013 power struggle between President Kiir and his ex-deputy Riek Machar, with Kirr accusing Machar of orchestrating a coup. The Kiir vs. Machar debacle led to elements of the South Sudanese army to rebel and follow Machar. This political conflict has also propagated communal violence along ethnic lines, with the Dinka primarily supporting the government and most Nuer supporting the rebels.
This ethnic division broadly reflects the tribal loyalties of the Kiir and Machar, and in turn leads to sporadic and decentralized acts of reciprocal communal violence by ragtag militias. These pressures on the government have, consequently, led to increasingly heavy-handed measures by the government to maintain control over the conflict's narrative. Juba is using its security forces to harass news outlets, journalists, and activists who report on rebel activity and/or critique the government's handling of the internal conflict, as well as human rights, and corruption.
Monday August 18th saw the latest in a string of incidents involving government forces and journalists as the National Security Service (NSS) shut down one of the main independent radio stations in the country: Bakhita Radio. Bakhita is run by the Roman Catholic Church and has invited the ire of the government by reporting on the renewed fighting between rebels and the government in Unity and Jonglei states.i Bakhita Radio's director Albino Tokwaro, news editor Ocen David Nicholas, and two news readers were detained by security forces.
Three of the four were later released, yet Ocen remains “in detention for balancing a news story.”ii Rights groups in the country are increasingly drawing attention to the government's blatant disregard for constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and press, with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticizing the NSS for “creating a growing atmosphere of fear.”iii
The fear and coercion experienced by Bakhita Radio's employees is shared by other activists and journalists around the country. On August 1st Deng Athuai, the chairperson of the civil society alliance was injured after he was shot by an unknown gunman. Lam Akol, leader of the 18 political parties at the peace talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia quickly condemned the incident, calling for an inquiry. Athuai has long been at the forefront of anti-corruption, democracy, and human rights struggles in South Sudan, and this is not the first time that he has been the target of violence. In 2012 he was allegedly kidnapped and tortured. He was subsequently found days later on the outskirts of Juba.iv
In addition to calls from Amnesty International and HRW on the government to stop shutting down newspapers, other radio stations have also been under assault.v The emphasis on radio is not surprising given the wide broadcast range of the medium, as well as its reach due to the low levels of literacy in the country. Alongside Bakhati Radio, faith based radio station Wëër Bei, based in the state of Northern Bahr el Ghazal was shut down from July 26th – 31st. The station was targeted by state caretaker governor Kuel Aguer Kuel, who according to freelance journalist and Wëër Bei volunteer Abraham Agoth, was unhappy with the station's coverage of state security activities.
Specifically, Agoth posits that Kuel's actions were due to the fact that Wëër Bei aired an interview with a state parliament member claiming rebel attacks on villages in the north of the state. Moreover, Agoth has as of July 28th gone into hiding fearing arrest, following warnings not to cover rebel activity, as well as prior questioning by police over his reporting of shop owner protests.vi
Amnesty and HRW cite a March 31st 2014 UK government report noting that, “Information Minister Michael Makeui stated that journalists who interviewed opposition figures risked possible arrest or expulsion from the country. Self-censorship by journalists and media houses is now understood to be widespread.” Journalists in South Sudan echo this claim that the government is instituting a policy of harassment against balanced news reporting.vii A South Sudanese journalist, who wished to remain anonymous, angrily complained that the “frequency of targeted arrests is unbecoming […] and people should come out to tell the government that it has crossed the red line of rights.”viii
South Sudanese government officials have directly warned journalists not to cover various issues, yet they have also repeatedly feigned ignorance of events or simply denied that there are tensions between civil society and the government. These mixed messages have fuelled an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear among the country's media, as the aim and scope of government action appears to vary on a case by case basis.
For instance, government spokesperson Ateny Wek Ateny - in contrast to accusations by local journalists and international organizations - denies claims of harassment, stating that everyone is allowed to express themselves and that there is no intimidation by the government of the media in South Sudan. In an amusing twist of fate, Ateny made these comments during an interview on Bakhati Radio, one week before security forces stormed the news outlet. When reached for comment following the raid on Bakhati Radio and of the arrest of Ocen et al, Ateny flatly stated he was not aware of such arrests, that Bakhati Radio had not informed him of these acts, and that the reporter's question was the first he had heard about it.ix
ii“South Sudan Security Shuts Down Key Radio Over Rebel Reports,” http://www.nation.co.ke/news/africa/South-Sudan-security-shuts-key-radio-over-rebel-reports-/-/1066/2423500/-/r5xx6gz/-/index.html
iii“South Sudan Security Shuts Down Key Radio Over Rebel Reports,” http://www.nation.co.ke/news/africa/South-Sudan-security-shuts-key-radio-over-rebel-reports-/-/1066/2423500/-/r5xx6gz/-/index.html
vi“Freelance Journalist in Hiding Over Reports on South Sudan,” https://cpj.org/2014/08/freelance-journalist-in-hiding-over-reports-on-sou.php