A day before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited South Sudan this month, McClatchy correspondent Alan Boswell reported that President Salva Kiir had finally acknowledged his government’s support for a Nuba Mountains-based group that had been skirmishing with Sudanese forces. In a letter to his U.S. counterpart, the story said, Kiir apologized for his previous denials, which came in the face of U.S. intelligence to the contrary. The story, which exposed an important element in the tense relations between the two once-joined nations, put Boswell in the cross-hairs.
Two days later, Information Minister Barnaba Marial accused Boswell in a radio interview of being paid by the Sudanese government to tarnish Africa’s newest government. “This is a guy who is completely in the pay of Khartoum,” the minister said in a Sudan Radio Service interview. “It is not true what he is writing. He has never written anything in favor of South Sudan.” Worse, Marial convened a press conference in Juba the next day, distributing a statement that denied the story and slammed Boswell as “an enemy of peace.”
Boswell’s prolific reporting on Sudan and South Sudan belies the minister’s accusations. Since January, Boswell had been writing about the atrocities committed by the Sudanese army in the Nuba Mountains region of Blue Nile State, citing Sudanese President Omar Bashir’s human rights record as “one of the worst in the world”–hardly propaganda for Khartoum. “It is a completely baseless charge, and the government [of South Sudan] knows that,” Boswell responded in a radio interview. “No U.S. official contradicted my reporting or demanded a retraction, and no representative of the South Sudanese government has contacted either me or my newspaper company with information to contradict what I reported.”
In the violent context of Sudanese-South Sudanese relations, public accusations from a senior government official can endanger a journalist’s life. “I’m sure I needn’t tell you that among many of your countrymen, being ‘completely in the pay of Khartoum’ is tantamount to an accusation of being a spy for the enemy,” McClatchy President and CEO Patrick Talamantes wrote to the minister. “Suggesting that Mr. Boswell is in the pay of the enemy risks his physical well-being, as you surely knew when you selected that phrase and then made certain it was distributed widely.”
Tensions between South Sudan and Sudan, which separated in July 2011, are rife to the point where both sides nearly warred in April over border and resource disputes, according to local journalists and news reports. The reactionary and often violent security forces in South Sudan make the minister’s comments particularly reckless.
Marial replied to the McClatchy letter last week, offering to meet Boswell but sticking to his unjustified assertions. “We have noted the continuous negative campaign in which Mr. Alan Boswell has been targeting the people and the Republic of South Sudan in all his articles that reflect a pro-Khartoum campaign,” he wrote to the McClatchy newspaper company.
Facing continuing pressure from McClatchy and others, Marial finally wrote a retraction “for the sake of understanding and harmony” and welcomed Boswell to continue reporting in Sudan. The minister’s admission constitutes a victory for press freedom in South Sudan. But what about local journalists who do not have the backing of strong media companies to clear their names?
Take Bonifacio Taban, a correspondent for the news website Sudan Tribune who works in the restive Unity State where sporadic conflicts between Sudanese and South Sudanese forces are common. “Our leaders in South Sudan react like that whenever journalists in South Sudan write a critical article about their leadership,” Taban told me in reaction to the accusations against Boswell. A senior South Sudan army commander detained Taban in June, accusing him of being a “Khartoum agent” for an article he wrote about widows of the former southern rebels with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. “He told me he could do away with me and no one would do anything to him,” the journalist said. Taban’s article, “Over 500 SPLA widows complain of ill-treatment,” angered the military because the figure suggested more soldiers had died in recent border conflicts than the southern army had acknowledged. Further, some of the widows Taban interviewed complained of not receiving proper compensation for the death of their husbands, according to local journalists and reports. Fortunately for Taban, the South Sudanese officer eventually let him go without charge.
Nonetheless, the fear of being labeled by authorities as a supporter of Sudan is enough to make many South Sudanese journalists hesitant to report freely. Part of the problem lies in the way that South Sudanese journalists reported news during the civil war. As Alfred Taban, a veteran journalist and founder of The Juba Monitor, told me last year, “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.” Today, the South Sudanese press has recognized that the war is over and its role must change. Despite growing evidence of widespread government corruption, South Sudan’s leaders expect the press to blindly support them. Perhaps Boswell’s case will serve as a reminder that the times have changed and that a vibrant, critical press is one of the fruits of peace.