Home | Comment & Analysis    Friday 15 May 2020

Access to information under seize in South Sudan

By Manyang David Mayar

Millions of South Sudanese across the country solely depend on media as a source of obtaining reliable and accurate information regarding issues of current political trends going on in the country most particularly the progress of the implementation of the peace agreement.

I am glad to proudly say that South Sudanese journalists are so committed and determined to do their journalistic work. Despite the scorching Juba’s weather, they sacrificed their comfort for the public interests just to get timely information from the authorized sources.

Unfortunately, some key officials of the recently established Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity (RTGoNU) have become parsimonious with the information at a time when facts matter most by obstructing access to information.

The past one week has been tough to me including some of my colleagues in the media fraternity as we tried to seek official comments from several government bureaucrats. It is quite unfortunate to see how the access to information right has been hampered under conceited government officials who deliberately made it difficult to open their doors to journalists.

Last week, I decided to visit the office of the president in a bid to seek remarks from the presidential affairs minister, Mr Mayiik Ayii Deng regarding the allocation of the states to the parties as demanded by the peace deal.

Immediately after I reached the State House’s front desk, I was made to fill the appointment form, and I did without reservation because it is a prerequisite everywhere in the world. Shortly, I was informed that my request to meet the minister was approved. The receptionist handed me a visitor’s card as well as directing me to the office of the aforesaid minister after a security check. You could imagine the euphoria I had as a reporter that race with time.

My aim just like another competent journalist was to get the necessary information I needed. As soon as I entered the minister’s office manager’s desk, the air-conditioning welcomed me, and that was about 11 a.m, a day after the presidency announced to have reached an agreement on the allocation of the long-awaited states.

The office manager informed me that the minister was a bit busy with other officials and swiftly advised me to go to President Kiir’s press secretary, Ateny Wek Ateny, with the hope of aiding me to find the minister which I heed to. Ateny also acted with urgency by calling minister Mayiik and he was told that I should wait for some time.

I patiently sat in a first-class couch at Ateny’s office not knowing that I was to wait for at least two hours just to get another update that the minister was in a meeting with the head of state and his five deputies. Again, I was told to wait for some time, and with no objection, I did since I am a public information servant I had to dedicate my time to get the statement.

My earlier excitement continues to disappear as I worriedly keep glancing at my phone-timing to check the time until my eyes spotted 3 p.m. and the message came back that the minister may not be able to give me a comment that time. I was totally upset and disappointed because the information I needed to give to the public was ruined that day.

The funny part of my time-wasting at the country’s first office was that I spent good four hours without drinking water as if I am one of one my Muslims brothers who are fasting currently in this Holy month of Ramadan.

That was not the only office I was kept waiting or had access to information denied. Ministry of Higher education was another terrible institution.

I believe that majority of you have had a spat between the Ministry of Higher Education and students under government scholarships abroad over the 3 million U.S. dollars earlier approved by the high-level task force on COVID-19 pandemic to support the student during this coronavirus period.

Students have criticized the Ministry on how the money is being remitted to the beneficiaries. The students said that the ministry was only paying 100 U.S. dollars per student that were contrary to the previous communication of 250 USD per scholar. As a journalist, I went to the ministry to find out the truth behind this, but I was shocked at the office manager’s words.

The official questioned me why I would want the minister to comment on the matter but to my surprised, he categorically told me that if the story is about the 3 million USD allocated to the students’ welfare abroad, then it would never be possible, and I quote “I will not allow you to see the minister on that.”

Again, I tried seeking information from the undersecretary’s office, and it was the same response. I persisted the next day with the undersecretary and managed to get him after waiting for not less than two hours.

As much as I had a rough experience with the two government institutions, I then thought the office of the First Vice president would be different not knowing that “Birds of the same feathers flock together.” I was also kept waiting to no avail by the advocates of reforms and good governance.

Don’t quote me wrong, I am literally saying that, the like of the First Vice President press secretary, James Gatdet Dak should be at a core of giving out the information to journalists each time a journalist knock at their door.

After I failed to get the comment from president Kiir office, I decided to follow up on the allocation of the state which Machar’s group also played down.

To get James, you have to go through two other guys. The first one is a media officer who is to understand your mission. After this, he would go to the security guy who is responsible for opening the door with a security card.

The junior media officer by the name of Gunnar Gordon told me to wait while Gatdet was having a meeting with other government officials. And I waited. After nearly thirty minutes, two guys came out and two ladies entered. Gordon checked to see if I can come in but the First Vice President press secretary had started another meeting with the ladies. I was told to wait once more. And I did. The two ladies came out and another group of men in a suit came and went in. Perhaps another meeting.

After there, I was upset and pressured Gordon to go and check the status of my meeting with Gatdet, again Gatdet told his aid that he would call me on phone and that I should leave. This was after I had waited for three hours. Till now, I am still waiting for the First Vice President press secretary to call.

The new style that the government officials deployed to denied access to information from journalists is through telling them to wait either at their front offices’ doors or kept them seated at their lavish receptions couch like common beggars. This is sad, and it should be discouraged with an immediate effect.

The only moment our South Sudan’s government officials adhered to journalists is when they have prepared their urgent information that they would like to use the media houses to communicate to the public for their gains.

This is exactly what High-level task-force on COVID-19 does daily. They assigned a person to speak to the media by reading out the statement word by word and decline to answer follow up questions regarding money and its spending.

Journalism is not about relying on what is stated in press releases. It is also about facts checking behind the released press statements and joining the dots with what the public is saying and their fears regarding the matter. It is also about balancing a story.

I, therefore, appeal to government officials to open their doors to journalists who are there to seek comments for the sake of balancing their stories and inform the public with accurate and non-partisan information. They are not there to beg or lobby for any political position. They are only there for less than 10 minutes! Give them the information they need. Please talk to them.

Manyang David is a journalist living in Juba and he can be reached at manyang.davidmayar@gmail.com