The independence of South Sudan has offered the chance to sow the seeds of democracy. Plagued by five decades of nearly continuous war, the country was quick to opt for new freedoms and reforms. Yet, just a few years after independence, South Sudan appears more than ever at a crossroads on press freedom, whether to choose a free press or to give way to Khartoum-like repressive policies.
South Sudan is a nation without a history of formal institutions, rules or administration, and it has close to none of the key human rights and civil liberties instruments. It is burdened with outdated and overly interpretive defamation and libel laws, and an over-regulated media.
Last year, President Salva Kiir signed three long-awaited Media Bills into law. This measure offered hope for media protection and new freedoms and has been a significant win for the struggling local media. However, since the signing of the Bills, the laws have rarely been implemented and have often served as a smoke screen to censor the press.
Here are some examples of how subtle government rhetoric, cloaked in national security purposes, has served as a powerful weapon against press freedom.
Recently, Michael Makuei, the South Sudan Minister for Information and Broadcasting, vowed that the government would take journalists to court, and would jail them, for misinformation, defamation and libel, as defined within the legal framework of South Sudan. The problem is, the laws in question have been so loosely formulated that anyone writing about the government could end up in jail.
The threat of jail and legal action are common strategies used by countries cracking down on the press. Neighboring Ethiopia still uses loosely worded laws on terrorism to indefinitely imprison journalists writing stories which are not favorable to the government.
Last month, President Kiir made thinly veiled threats to local journalists, pointing that “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 your country.” A few days later, a reporter, critical of the government’s handling of the peace negotiations, was killed. Defending the President, his spokesman insisted that his comments were taken out of context, but was quick to add, “They [journalists] must not forget at the end of the day that South Sudan was their country. They should not betray the country which has killed people…”
So far this year in South Sudan, seven journalists have been killed. There have been eight media house closures, nine unwarranted arrests, seven incidents of newspaper confiscations and at least six cases of harassment. Since last year, South Sudan has slipped by 2 places to a 126th on the global Press Freedom Index.
The reasons for closures or confiscations of newspaper copies are diverse and often worrying. One example was carrying a picture of the president’s main rival on the front page urging a peaceful solution to conflict. Other examples included exposing issues of corruption and internal rifts within the government and mentioning the high salaries in the government’s department of legal affairs.
The media is increasingly becoming the scapegoat for government ills, including national security breaches, the spurring of ethnic conflicts, and even war. More and more independent voices are being silenced at this critical time in the country’s history when the public desperately needs impartial information.
Building a just, democratic and developed state cannot be realised without free and independent voices, and suppression of open debate in the process of national reconciliation is deeply concerning.
The enterprise of human development is based on ideas, viewpoints and arguments; and for there to be progress, these need to be continuously assessed, challenged, refined, validated or discarded. This cannot happen without free expression. At this critical time in South Sudanese history, the government still lacks these convictions. The understanding of the importance of a free press within the South Sudanese government remains elusive. There are shifting and obscure limits as to how far the ink can flow.
The long-suffering South Sudanese people deserve and need for their voices to be heard as they build their own future.