January 16, 2013 (JUBA) – Following a series of attacks, intimidation and threats comment writers and bloggers in the South Sudan say they are operating in a heightened sense fear.
Speaking a month after a prominent op-ed writer was shot dead by an unknown group after consistently criticising the government, South Sudanese journalist and commentators have spoken to Sudan Tribune about the risks that accompany freedom in the young nation.
“In 2010, I was arrested and detained for 12 hours after writing an article on how President Salva Kiir should have appointed his cabinet,” John Mading Yak recalled on Wednesday.
Yak, who has since abandoned opinion writing, is just one South Sudanese writers who has experienced difficulties for expressing his views on national issues through the press.
In his article, three years ago before South Sudan gained independence, Yak proposed that some cabinet positions should be given to people who were “experts” in their field.
The article was published after 2010 elections under the heading “If I were President Salva Kiir Mayardit, this would be my cabinets”. In detention, Yak was allegedly told to stop writing due his young age.
Yak argues that there should be nothing wrong with young people in South Sudan “who want to express their opinions” in the press and other forums.
South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011 following a referendum promised in the 2005 peace accord that ended two decades of north-south Sudan civil war.
During the civil war, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) – the former rebels who know govern the world’s youngest nation – stated that they were fighting the rights of these marginalised by various Khartoum’s regimes.
The SPLM accused the northern elites, who have ruled Sudan since independence in 1956, of oppression and restriction on fundamental freedoms, including a free press and freedom of experssion.
But since taking charge of Southern Sudan in 2005 as a semi-autonomous region, there have been numerous complaints of intimidation against civil society activists and journalists from agents of the state and their affiliates.
In December 2012, a leading political activist Isaiah Ding Abraham Chan Awuol – popularly known as Isaiah Abraham -was killed in Juba. The government says that the circumstances indicate that there is a 70% chance that it was an assassination.
Early this month, government spokesman and minister of information Baranaba Marial Benjamin said some suspects have been arrested but nothing more is known about how many or who the suspects are.
Since the killing of Isaiah Abraham, South Sudanese opinion writers and journalists have lived in fear. Some writers allege that they are threatened by text messages for asking the government to account for the assassination Abraham.
At a ceremony organized by South Sudan opinion writers in Juba on January 4 to pay tribute to Isaiah Abraham, proponents of press freedom talked of their determination to continue “knocking [on] the door of those [in] power.”
Nhial Bol Aken, the founder and editor in chief of the Citizen Newspaper, said the killing of journalists is not new in Sudan, having witnessed the practice in Khartoum. Bol challenged the leaders of the new country to prove that they are indifferent with the Khartoum regime, they split away from.
Though regular contributors to local newspapers have not halted their work, the number of articles critical of the country’s leadership appears to have decreased since Abraham’s murder. Those who stopped commenting on national issues say they don’t want to risk being killed.
“I will write again when I see that the environment [for freedom of expression] is better,” said David Manyang Mayar, a reporter for The Juba Post and a stringer for Voice of America’s South Sudan in Focus programme. Manyang used to contribute opinion articles to local newspapers but now thinks he has to “dance according to the tune.”
He has not being arrested before but says that avoiding writing critical stories is a precautionary measure to protect his life. Writers who faced harassment from suspected state agents like John Mading Yak believe time is ripened.
“I thought it is better to stay alive,” said John Mading Yak when asked why he had to scarify his constitutional rights to freedom of expression.
Efforts made to reach South Sudan ministry of information for comment fail as several requests made for interview were not successful. But in the past, officials have called for responsible journalism adding that enacting media law will help protect journalists.
Despite governing the South since 2005 the SPLM-dominated parliament has not passed a media law, leaving journalists and proprietors in a legal and security limbo unclear of their rights and the parametres within which they are allowed to operate.
“I don’t think having a law that is not being respected serves anything,” said Yak when asked whether the passing of legal document to regulate journalism could be a step forward.
South Sudanese journalists also face public criticism in this tribally divided country. Often accused of siding with tribesmen particularly when covering ethnic violence, other threats to their lives comes from the public. A number of reporters, including Sudan Tribune journalists, have been threatened and abuse over mobile phone for covering various stories.
In 2011 a Sudan Tribune journalist was detained illegally without charge for 18 days by security forces after a newspaper he worked for in Juba published an article criticising the marriage of the President’s daughter to an Ethiopian man.
Despite not writing or personally approving the comment piece the journalist was repeatedly tortured and beaten while in custody and denied access to a lawyer of medical care.
Such incidents have dampened much of the optimism that came with South Sudan’s independence. South Sudan is currently a crossroads in terms of according the fundamental freedoms the SPLM says it stood for.
But many like, John Mading Yak, still express hope that South Sudan will eventually embrace press freedom. Only “time will tell”, he says.
“But I hope there will be a change.”