Freelance journalist Peter Julius Moi used to ride a motorbike without wearing a helmet, despite warnings from one of his colleagues to be more careful. Moi would just shrug off those concerns, saying that as a South Sudanese journalist “risk was simply part of life.” Last month, the reporter was shot dead as he walked home from work.
Local journalists understand Moi’s view on the risks for South Sudan’s press and told CPJ they have been using self-censorship more since his death. “I got personally shocked and am still struggling to recover from the trauma of seeing his dead body lying on the dirt that fateful day,” a freelance journalist and friend of Moi, who asked not to be named out of security concerns, told CPJ. “I am not sure how many journalists will go into hiding since this incident, but for now the work spirit among journalists is that of a scared, disillusioned press.”
Moi was shot by unknown assailants on August 19, according to reports. CPJ is investigating to determine if his death was work related. Six other journalists in two separate incidents have died in South Sudan this year, making the young country the most dangerous place in Africa to practice journalism in 2015. CPJ has been able to determine that five of those journalists were killed in direct reprisal for their work. It is still investigating whether the death of Pow James Raeth, who was shot dead in May, was connected to his work as a radio reporter.
CPJ has recorded at least six cases of journalists who have either gone into hiding or fled the country since Moi’s death. Local journalists with whom CPJ spoke said threats against the press, often in the form of anonymous phone calls and text messages, have increased recently and few are willing to take chances by working in such a tense environment. “The threats are very real,” said a journalist who worked for an independent publication and who fled into exile recently. The journalist, who had received threatening messages, added: “You never know when a threat via phone may materialize and journalists here know these attacks can occur at any time without consequence [to the perpetrators].”
No one has been brought to justice in any of the seven killings this year, or for the killing of critical online columnist Isaiah Diing Abraham Chan Awuol, who was shot outside his home in the capital, Juba, in 2012. CPJ is still investigating whether his death was related to his work. Security agents continue to hold George Livio, a journalist for the U.N. backed Radio Miraya, who according to reports was arrested without explanation in August last year. Although CPJ was unable to determine a clear link between his arrest and journalism, Livio’s case illustrates the problems with South Sudan’s legal system, where individuals can be arbitrarily detained, seemingly without any recourse to law. Clement Lochio, a former journalist for online news website Gurtong, is believed to have been arrested by security agents and held incommunicado since August 6, 2015, according to news reports. Relatives of the journalist said in a statement that he was taken by security agents. Authorities refuse to confirm or deny Lochio is being held, according to local media reports.
“The big challenge is that these security agents do whatever they feel like doing to anyone and no court of law or any institution [is] holding them accountable for their unconstitutional acts,” Biel Boutros Biel, lawyer and director of human rights group South Sudan Human Rights Society for Advocacy, told CPJ. Repeated calls to the interior ministry spokesman for comment about these claims were left unanswered.
The recent threats against the press come as the government faces criticism from local and foreign bodies. Since December 2013, a civil war pitting supporters of President Salva Kiir against those of former Vice-President Riek Machar has led to tens of thousands of people being killed and millions more displaced. Government troops were accused in a U.N. report in June of “new levels of brutality” in their assault on civilians in Unity state. Rebel forces under Machar have been accused of killing civilians and attacking places of worship, according to Human Rights Watch. After repeated broken ceasefire agreements, Kiir signed a peace deal with Machar in August.
The press had to be sensitive in its coverage of the peace agreement, local journalists with whom CPJ spoke said. In the lead up to the peace agreement security forces shuttered indefinitely two privately owned dailies, The Citizen and the Arabic-language Al-Rai, along with an independent media outlet, Free Voice South Sudan, reports said. “The authority in the national security and the ministry of information never gave us [a] reason other than just picking an opinion article and saying that it was not worth publishing, without any further explanation,” Citizen chief editor Nhial Bol told CPJ. Bol told online news site Sudan Tribune this week that he has quit journalism after receiving death threats.
Before leaving for meetings in Ethiopia to discuss the ceasefire, President Kiir threatened to kill journalists for reporting “against the country,” according to news reports and a recording in CPJ’s possession.
Some local journalists said they hope the peace agreement will improve conditions for the press. “We believe that if they form the transitional government following the peace agreement there will be more actors in the system and it will not be one group dictating what to be done, others will want a free press,” Bol told CPJ. But others said they feared the agreement will never be implemented, especially with reports of violations of the ceasefire already emerging. In such a scenario local journalists with whom CPJ spoke said they feared South Sudan’s leaders will target the press to silence public criticism. “The persecutions will not go away,” Ochan Hannington, a journalist living in exile, told CPJ. “You report accurately, you face it rough. You say what the government wants to hear, you survive. I see either a compromise in the ethics or continued fleeing of journalists.”
The result of this intimidation and silence of the press is an uninformed public whose understanding of the peace process is negligible, the journalists told CPJ. “I believe that over 90 percent of citizen have not known what is in the [peace] agreement,” the freelance journalist, who asked not to be named, said. Instead, he said, the peace agreement is largely discussed under neem trees where rumour trumps fact and “the majority of discussions take place in hushed tones.” Biel, from South Sudan Human Rights Society for Advocacy, agreed, telling CPJ: “Without information on the issues that happen in the country, the public shall surely remain ignorant at best and uninformed at worst.”