Last week, South Sudan's ruling party secretary-general, Pagan Amum, won an important court battle, absolving him of allegations that he received a $30 million corrupt payment in 2006. The accusations came from former Finance Minister Arthur Akuien Chol, who alleged earlier this year that he had received orders from "above" to transfer the public money, according to local reports. The court acquitted Amum based on insufficient evidence. The money, however, remains unaccounted for, according to local reports. And the odds of any journalist in South Sudan investigating the matter further are slim.
For reporting on the corruption charges, two independent newspapers, The Citizen and Al Masir, were ordered by a court in South Sudan's capital, Juba, to pay 100,000 South Sudanese pounds (US$37,000) each in damages to Amum, local journalists told CPJ. If the papers do not publish an apology within 15 days, the court ruled, the fine would increase to 1 million South Sudanese pounds to be paid in three months.
Like most papers the world over, The Citizen survives on a shoe-string budget and couldn't withstand such fees, Chief Editor Nhial Bol told me. "We are going to appeal this decision," he said. "All we did was quote the former finance minister -- there is nothing libelous about that."
Speaking to journalists outside the courtroom, Amum said the verdict sent a clear message that freedom of expression "should be exercised in such a measured, responsible manner that ensures the rights of others are not hammered or taken away," according to local reports.
The ruling sent another message to reporters in Africa's newest country: Reporting about corruption can be detrimental to your media houses' survival. "They are trying to silence the media from reporting on corruption issues," Bol said. Many of Bol's colleagues agree. "Such heavy fines can easily lead to the creation of a state of fear in the media," New Nation correspondent Anthony Kamba told me. Simon Tongun from the critical Catholic radio station Bakhita FM agrees: "As for the performance of the media after this issue, it is honestly going to be difficult for us to publish information on corruption but we will not give up."
The problem, local journalists tell me, is that they are working in a legal vacuum without any media laws in place to assist in their defense. A proposed media law, first introduced nearly five years ago, would have provided an independent press ombudsman to mediate the case, but the law is yet to be passed. Despite pledges made to me last year by Information Minister Barnabas Marial that the bills would be tabled "soon," most journalists in South Sudan are not holding their breath. "The media in South Sudan still operates under what I have often termed playing a game of football without rules," said Jacob Akol, chair of the Association of Media Development in South Sudan, an organization that is campaigning for passage of the law. "We are told that the media is free to report anything within the law; but what law?" Akol said. While a court can use the penal code to fine a newspaper any amount providing it is not "excessive," the press has no legal means to counter such unlimited fines.
Other sensitive issues such as security are also no-go areas for South Sudanese journalists. The government of South Sudan confiscated copies of the independent biweekly newspaper The Juba Post last year for quoting a dissident group claiming it would launch an attack on Juba. Security tensions between Sudan and South Sudan have reached a boiling point along their border, with both sides targeting each other's oil fields. Accurate coverage of these events will no doubt prove another challenge for South Sudan's independent journalists.