February is the hottest month in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and Mading Ngor, a reporter and presenter for the Catholic-owned Bakhita FM, trudged his way through the heat to cover parliament proceedings last week--only to be thrown unceremoniously out of the assembly. "Before I had time to argue, four security guards pinned me to the ground and dragged me across the floor, tearing up my trousers," Ngor, a hard-hitting, critical journalist, told me.
The ensuing furor included apologies, a protest, an opinion column, a committee investigation, parliamentary debate, the banning of Ngor from the assembly, and finally, a parliamentary call to revive deliberations over three media bills originally drafted five years ago. While some journalists see the resurrection of those proposals as a silver lining, others -- including Ngor -- are worried that debate over the bills in this heated atmosphere may spell trouble for press freedom in the world's newest country.
"If they do it now, it will not be the same bills we had hoped would pass," Ngor said.
It all began, Ngor says, because he sat in the wrong place. Normally he sits in the public gallery, but as he arrived on February 6 the legislative assembly was reading out motions. "So I opted to sit in the other section in the back -- the whole row was empty." An unidentified security officer ordered him to be removed from the parliament premises. After Ngor attempted to reason with the security officer and finish his reporting, he was thrown out by thuggish force.
"This case is getting unwarranted media attention," Ngor says, given that such incidents happen all the time in South Sudan. "I remember last September the security almost murdered me for taking a picture in the assembly." Later he found that there was no official protocol banning photography in the assembly hall. Indeed, South Sudan has already developed a reputation for allowing security operatives to abuse civilians with impunity, including journalists. CPJ documented nine cases of security attacks against journalists last year; in two cases the journalists had to be hospitalized for treatment.
After Ngor was ejected, Member of Parliament Joy Kwaje, chair of the Assembly's Information Committee, apologized and promised to investigate the matter, according to local reports. Speaker James Wani Igga and some other MPs denounced the brutal action. Ten journalists marched to Kwaje's office, according to local reports, and took the opportunity to air their grievances over prior abuses. "Including a female reporter, Mary Ajit from the Citizen," Ngor said, "Security slapped her in the face for no reason some time back."
"I am of the view that this incident has set the launching of the struggle between those in the halls of power and those who love freedoms, including of expression, because what was attacked was [not only] an individual, but freedom of expression as well as the bill of rights," Chief Editor Nhial Bol of the private daily Citizen, wrote in a scathing column. The editor was admonished by MPs for claiming in his op-ed, incorrectly, that they were "celebrating the beating of our colleague."
Despite the initial round of apologies, the committee who investigated Ngor's removal quickly dashed hopes for justice. "During the investigation, we found out that Mading had more than 10 cases with the security personnel of the National Legislative Assembly," Kwaje was quoted as saying by the online Sudan Tribune. She also said Ngor had refused to identify himself after security asked, according to local reports.
Some of the committee's alleged findings against Ngor, however, sounded specious. "One of the guys [in the committee] claimed I always came drunk to parliament but I have never even met him," Ngor told me. One of the findings read out by Kwaje to the Assembly last week claimed Ngor was a freelance journalist and did not work for Bakhita FM, local journalists told me. Apparently none of the investigative committee listen to his popular morning talk show on Bakhita FM, "Wake up Juba," where Ngor conducts interviews with top political officials of South Sudan - including the Secretary General of the ruling party, Pagan Amun.
Parliament ultimately decided to ban Ngor indefinitely from the assembly after the committee's findings, he said.
Many local journalists I spoke to suspect the decision to ban Ngor is rooted in his professionalism as a journalist. Ngor's "Wake up Juba" program explores issues few journalists venture to touch, such as corruption within government circles.
Ngor grew up in Alberta, Canada, studying journalism at Grant MacEwan University. "I came [to South Sudan] as a journalist because independence is the story of the century, and I wanted to be part of that. After losing my relatives in the war I felt a sort of moral obligation to contribute to the country," he said in an interview with The Seattle Times.
Meanwhile, MP Kwaje, among others, called on the executive to bring the media bills back to parliament, local journalists said. The three proposals, which would initiate a public broadcaster, create an independent press ombudsman, and provide greater access to information, have been bouncing back and forth between the ministry of legal affairs and council of ministers for years. "Without media laws we are like footballers playing without rules, and what happens is that anybody can blow the whistle and say these are the rules -- his rules," said Jacob Akol, chairman of the Association of Media and Development in South Sudan, which supports the laws' passage.
Columnist Zechariah Manyok has concerns. "What guarantee will the media have that the bill is not going to be based on the anger of the Assembly, making it a law against the media [rather] than a law meant to regulate the activities of the media?" he wrote in the Sudan Tribune.
"It has not been easy and will not be easy at the moment for the media in the newest country," said freelance journalist Anthony Kamba, who hopes the publicity surrounding Ngor's incident will foster change. "It will only turn out to be a safe haven when the media laws are passed," he said.