The former guerrillas of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) fought a 22-year civil war for greater autonomy and civil rights for the southern Sudanese people, culminating in South Sudan’s independence this July. But local journalists fear the former rebels turned government officials still harbor a war mentality that is unaccustomed to criticism, and that they are not prepared to extend the freedoms they fought hard to attain. “We are still recovering from a war culture,” Oliver Modi, chairman of the Union of Journalists of Southern Sudan, told me. “There is just too much ignorance toward the press. We are not used to systems, structures–even the media,” he said, pointing to a list of eight documented cases of attacks against the press this year.
Jacob Akol, founder of the Gurtong Peace and Media Project, said that changing government attitudes toward the press will be challenging given the ruling party’s roots. “They all come from a military background. They have no experience in democracy. It’s not that you can just say, ‘Ah, now we are democratic.'” When the U.N.-backed Miraya FM radio station interviewed opposition candidates in the country’s state elections last year, the director general of information, Mustafa Biong, accused the station of “treason” for granting the interviews, Anne Bennett, Miraya FM’s head of projects, said.
On the day of South Sudan’s independence, SPLA military intelligence beat up opposition leader Onyati Adigo in the commercial capital, Juba, for hanging posters without “requesting permission,” local journalists said. “Imagine, the day of our independence and they already block free expression,” Nhial Bol, chief editor of the private daily The Citizen, told me. Even worse, he said, a senior security official told him not to write about the incident. “So I stopped writing–what else could I do?” Bol said.
Unused to criticism, many in the new government expect the media to simply support their efforts. “Some in the [Sudan People’s Liberation Movement] want the press to become part of the government,” said journalist Alfred Taban, who started an English daily, Khartoum Monitor, in North Sudan’s capital in 2000. “The [South Sudanese] press is partly to blame. During the war, the southern press acted almost entirely as an opposing voice to the Khartoum government.” The government-controlled press of northern Sudan always portrayed South Sudan in a negative light during the civil war, while in turn, the fledgling southern press defended the southern rebel movement. The result of this war of words has led to a southern press unfamiliar with critical reporting and a highly defensive new government intolerant of any disapproval. “There is an idea here in media rooms in South Sudan that we need not tell ‘our enemies’ of our weakness,” said Garang John, reporter for the state-controlled South Sudan TV. “But I keep telling them that the enemy is gone from the north, and now we need to look at our own enemies.”
The various government security outfits, often legacies of the wartime era, show the least tolerance and understanding toward the press, local journalists said. “The security officials are not aware of the role of journalists,” Bol said. “Sometimes, even when you are invited by the office of the president, they will chase you out of the room.” In February, four security officers in plain clothes severely beat The Citizen‘s driver, Madeng Kout, and raided the newspaper’s office after Bol wrote a column detailing how police had not been paid for three months and had started engaging in criminal behavior. “After I ran the story, the former security minister threatened me over the phone and then the security came,” Bol said.
Sister Cecilia Sierra Salcido, head of the Catholic Radio Service’s Bakhita Radio, is also no stranger to the various security entities in South Sudan. Bakhita Radio is a popular Juba-based Christian station that holds weekly political forums. Salcido has been asked on three occasions to provide authorities with a staff list with contact details and to stop all political programming. She has managed to continue operating despite authorities’ demands and believes a certain level of understanding is now gradually developing between security agents and the station. The problem, she says, is the lack of organization within the security departments. “The government security organs are made up of many individuals with an absence of a legal framework, so we do not know who or with what authority they interfere in the media.”
Security, good governance, and human rights issues are often taboo areas for coverage, local journalists said. And acquiring access to officials for information on these subjects is near impossible. “There is no access to information,” says Rumbek-based freelance journalist Manyang Mayom, who has been detained by security on three occasions since 2006 for his reporting. “If you approach a state official for comment on corruption charges, they will just arrest you before you even reach the door,” he continued. Even state reporters are kept in the dark. “When the undersecretary in the health ministry was suspended, I expected a press release to learn why. It never came and no one, not even us, got access to the undersecretary,” South Sudan TV’s Garang John said.
Media bills, first introduced to parliament in 2007, might address the press corps’ concern over access to information and journalist protection. But many local journalists fear the bills, which would create a press ombudsman’s office, among other things, will never be passed. “Resistance to the media bills come from some individuals from an authoritarian background of corruption and [who] fear exposure,” said Hakim Moi, head of the Association of Media Development in South Sudan, an organization committed to promoting the legislation. Information Minister Barnaba Marial disputes these claims. “There are a lot of bills in parliament, urgent bills to be passed before the country was born. There is no one blocking the media bill, just an influx of bills,” he said. Whatever the reason, local journalists said they feel their working conditions remain tenuous without them. “We are working in a vacuum right now,” said Agele Benson, a freelance journalist working in Yei, a trading town near the Ugandan border.
Without a legal framework, many in the press rely on self-censorship to survive. “According to our experiences, if we write anything on the dissident rebels [in South Sudan], our paper risks closure,” Charles Rehan, chairman of Juba’s first independent paper, The Juba Post, said. Security agents confiscated a March edition and detained their distributor for a front-page interview with Gen. George Athor, leader of a dissident rebel group. “The security office called us, telling us not to write about insurgents or corruption issues and threatened to close our paper after the Athor interview,” Rehan recalled. “Now we find ourselves hiding facts deep within the paper–page six, for example. Deep within the paragraphs is where we hide the pertinent information.”
“In my personal experience, I try to write stories about human rights, but the editor does not publish it or it gets hidden,” freelance journalist Anthony Kamba said. Despite the challenges, Kamba and other local journalists believe press conditions have been gradually improving since the referendum, in which southern Sudanese citizens unanimously voted for separation from North Sudan, passed in January. “In 2008, there were rampant beatings by authorities against the press, all done with total impunity. We have a long way to go on many levels, but we have gone far since those days,” Kamba said.
(Reporting from Juba, Yei, and Rumbek, South Sudan)