South Sudan: Independence has not brought freedom for press

In November last year, Ngor Garang was illegally detained and repeatedly tortured for 18 days in South Sudan’s national security headquarters, located in the country’s interim capital, Juba.  His crime: he was the chief editor for a newspaper that published a column criticizing the marriage of President Salva Kiir’s daughter to an Ethiopian national.

In the wake of the incident, authorities shut the doors on Garang’s English-language daily Destiny. Six months on, Destiny remains out of circulation, banned by a South Sudanese government increasingly chided for its suppression of independent media.

Garang, however, is continuing the fight. Upon release he leveled toxic criticism against those responsible for his detention. Now writing for the Sudan Tribune, he still practices the trade despite being routinely targeted by state officials. In late March, he was dismissed from a ruling party council meeting in an incident authorities deemed inadvertent.

“These people thought they could silence us by intimidating me and breaking the law,” Garang told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in the aftermath of his detention. “But I told them even if they killed me they could not kill the freedom of the press.”

When South Sudan officially seceded from the north in July 2011, international and domestic parties alike had high hopes for press liberty in the world’s newest country. But that prospect has not come to fruition. South Sudanese journalists like Garang routinely face harassment, intimidation and violence for pursuing stories that tackle everything from corruption to security concerns. Some analysts anticipate an exacerbating situation.

“What is particularly disappointing is that the environment for press freedom has declined and deteriorated since secession,” said Robert Herman, Sub-Sahara Africa expert at Freedom House. “There are serious concerns about commitment on the side of the government of Salva Kiir. Despite what they’ve said and promised to donors, we’ve seen backsliding.”

A relatively muzzled media is not the only problem South Sudan is struggling to address. In the nine months to follow country’s historic partition, South Sudan has faced enduring crisis. Ethnic clashes in remote areas are common. More notably of late, South Sudan is embroiled in a row with the north over oil revenue sharing and territorial sovereignty. South Sudan shut down oil exports in January and has since felt the economic repercussions. Oil accounts for 98 percent of the poverty-stricken country’s state revenue. Since November, inflation has skyrocketed.

The disputes have also erupted in the largest scale clashes between the two national armies since independence. Last week, South Sudan seized a major oil field in territory the international community recognizes as north of the demarcation line. South Sudan claims the move was in response to weeks of aerial bombardment targeting its oil assets. Observes say the crisis may lead to greater government oppression in the south.

“Now that were getting to more confrontation with the north, my fear is the small freedoms that South Sudanese have received will be quashed,” said CPJ Africa consultant Tom Rhodes.

That would not be an uncommon consequence of escalating conflict and tensions. In conflict arenas throughout the globe, infringements on liberties are pervasive.

“When there are those kinds of external threats it creates an environment that is less conducive to the free flow of information and more constrained in terms of criticism,” said Herman.

Media legislation in South Sudan has been in the works for years but parliament has failed to pass a series of three bills. The legislation in its current form would significantly enhance press freedoms, according to observers. But those freedoms may prove elusive.

“The future of press freedom in South Sudan is uncertain especially with the delay of the media bills,” said Edward Terso, Editor of the Juba-based weekly Daily Mentor, in an email response to questions. “We have the feeling that the media bills will be passed only after deleting clauses that favour freedom of journalists. There is fear that more powers will be given to the security to control or even muzzle the press.”

The legislation faces resistance from the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) dominated parliament and the executive branch, according to analysts. Rhodes says the SPLM’s aversion to opposition is typical of other rebel movements that eventually claim the reigns of power. North and South Sudan engaged in two enduring civil wars after colonial powers departed the country. The most recent 22-year conflict ended in 2005 with the SPLM and the Khartoum government brokering a deal that fostered partition.

“The problem is you have a military government taking over a country that during the war had only sympathetic voices. They’re used to PR, not critical voices. That’s new to them,” said Rhodes. “Like other former rebel movements throughout the continent, the SPLM assumed the role of liberators. And then they don’t like to take any criticism.”

Despite state suppression, the media landscape in South Sudan is expanding. In recent months and years, the number of independent and private media houses operating in the country, from web-based content to print dailies to broadcasting, continues to rise. Media ownership, however, is an issue.

“When you look at the majority of the owners of the publications and broadcasters, they are either owned or heavily sympathetic to the SPLM,” said Rhodes. “So you have to wonder how many unbiased journalists there are in South Sudan.”

Analysts say corruption is endemic in South Sudan. This is, however, one of the most inaccessible areas of reporting for journalists. With the massive influx of international aid entering the country on a daily basis, the South Sudanese population would benefit substantially from greater transparency.

“Independent [media] in South Sudan is giving the best service by uncovering grievances in order to create a transparent, just and accountable society,” said Terso. “This service seems not to augur well with some individuals in government.”

Brian Dabbs is an internationally published print and photo journalist based in Nairobi