"They even started shooting through my house--I had to lie on the floor with my wife and kids," Angelo Wello, a freelance journalist for faith-based news sites and a pastor, told me. Like many residents of the capital of Juba, South Sudan, Angelo has found it incredibly hard to get accurate information and report on one of the most tragic, restive periods in South Sudan's short history. And, like other South Sudanese journalists, he has to weigh his work against safeguarding his own and his family's safety.
News reports estimate that roughly 500 have been killed in the country and tens of thousands have been displaced after a political dispute developed into fighting between soldiers in a conflict increasingly driven by ethnicity. Local journalists tell me they suspect the death toll is higher and that, while Juba is now relatively peaceful, the number of fatalities will increase as fighting continues in other parts of the country.
The roots of the conflict can be partly traced to a December 13 press conference where the former vice president, Riek Machar, and other leading members of the ruling party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), issued a statement voicing concern over the growing "dictatorial" style of President Salva Kiir. Immediately after the press conference, security agents warned the press not to broadcast or publish news of the event, local journalists told me. While the state broadcaster followed orders, international broadcasters and many within the local private press did not. Subsequently, copies of the Arabic independent daily Al Masir were confiscated and the owners of private daily Juba Monitor were ordered by security agents not to distribute their paper, according to news reports.
Critical reporting about the president had been increasingly a "no-go" area leading up to the conflict, many local journalists tell me. Two days after the news website Sudan Tribune reported on November 3 that Kiir had travelled to South Africa for medical reasons, Information Minister Michael Makuei held a press conference denying the claim and, without any legal backing, ordered all media houses to register with the government, local journalists said. The minister publicly singled out Sudan Tribune correspondent Ngor Garang (also known as Peter Ngor) despite the fact Garang did not write the report, he told me. Even worse, officials repeatedly called Garang demanding that he cease his critical reporting and that he visit national security offices. Later on, journalists collectively decided to reject the minister's registration demands and Makuei claimed he was "misinterpreted," according to news reports.
On the night of December 15, two days after the dissident group of SPLM leaders held their press conference, fighting broke out within the army barracks. The next morning, appearing on TV in army fatigues, Kiir claimed the shooting was a failed coup attempt orchestrated by the former vice president, and the next day 10 senior political figures were arrested. Few local or foreign reporters believed Kiir's story, but many local reporters toed the president's line for fear of retribution, several local journalists told me. "Most radios keep repeating the president's speech although no one believes the official version," the Director of Catholic Radio Network Enrica Vallentini said.
Security forces arrested Reuters correspondent Carl Odera and freelance photojournalist Ali Ngethi after the press conference and held them without charge for two nights, Odera and Ngethi said. Both were released on December 18, but authorities have not returned two mobile phones and a laptop belonging to Odera. "Smarting from a three-day ordeal at South Sudan's national security prisons," Odera tweeted upon his release. "Phones and laptop gone besides three straight days of starvation."
Reports vary on what actually triggered the fighting. One explanation, according to news reports, is that Kiir ordered the disarmament of soldiers in a certain battalion, whereupon the commander only disarmed those from the Nuer tribe--the second largest tribe in South Sudan--and not those from the largest tribe, the Dinka. Foreign correspondents have managed to cover the various claims on the origins of the conflict, but few are able to cover the fighting extensively given the insecurity, local journalists said.
"The press is closed," said freelancer Joseph Edward, one day into the conflict in Juba. "Media houses depend on government press statements and eye witness accounts which often do not provide an accurate picture. Many journalists could not go out because their families are not safe and fear they may be attacked in their absence."
Sporadic fighting between soldiers in Juba since December 16 has spread to the town of Bor, Jonglei State, to the point where a dissident Nuer general has taken over the town, news reports said. Supporters of ousted Vice President Machar, a Nuer, along with those sympathetic to the arrested senior leaders, predominantly of the Dinka-Bor sub-tribe, are now fighting with Dinka from Bahr-el Ghazal State in what increasingly appears to be an ethnically driven conflict. Human Rights Watch reported that soldiers were increasingly targeting civilians on ethnic lines.
The local press are not exempt from ethnic targeting. "They do not see you as a journalist, only your tribe," freelancer Daniel Deng told me. "Even though as a journalist I am impartial, I am seen and targeted as a Dinka first." Unknown assailants attacked two journalists working for the U.N.-backed Radio Miraya, James Irene and Lonya Banak, and Bentiu FM reporter James Agwek, at their residences last week and they were compelled to flee to the U.N. compound for safety, the Union of Journalists in South Sudan said. None of the reporters were targeted for their reporting but for their ethnicity--all being from the Nuer tribe, the union said.
Reporting on the crisis in restive Bor, where politically motivated tribal tensions have led to killings and a food crisis, has proven impossible for many reporters based there, local journalists told me. "Most of the local journalists in Bor have crossed into (neighbouring) Lakes State," Radio Miraya journalist Mayang Mayom told me. Access to reliable information in this setting is proving near impossible.
In some ways, a vacuum of accurate information triggered the conflict in the first place, according to local journalists, who cited false rumors among presidential guards that some of the guards had been killed. If there is any silver lining to this foreboding, dark cloud, it might be that the government appears to have realized that it needs the media. The military has been surprisingly helpful with updates and information, Andrew Green, reporter for U.S.-backed broadcaster Voice of America, told me. On Wednesday, the president held another press conference to update reporters, Radio Tamazuj reporter Godfrey Bulla told me. "The president had a three-hour press conference and provided a lot of time for questions--it was unprecedented," he said. "This is something we have not had in South Sudan. They have realized the importance of the press."
One can only hope that Bulla is right and that the government will go one step further and try to ensure the security of South Sudan's press--especially since the need for accurate, timely information has never been so acute.
UPDATE: This blog has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Lonya Banak's name and to reflect that Mayang Mayom is a Radio Miraya journalist--not a freelancer.