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South Sudan leaders accused of media crackdown

Newspaper vendors chat on their way to sell newspapers in Juba, 18 June 2012.
Newspaper vendors chat on their way to sell newspapers in Juba, 18 June 2012.

REUTERS/Adriane Ohanesian

Security forces in South Sudan have harassed journalists and interfered with independent media in the four months since the outbreak of fighting between rival political forces, media officials have told the International Press Institute.

Threats and harassment of the media come amid fresh reports of mass killings of civilians in a conflict that erupted in mid-December, derailing hopes for a peaceful start to a country that gained independence from Sudan in July 2011.

Journalists said security forces have seized press runs of at least two newspapers, interrogated reporters and confiscated news equipment. There are also reports that opposition militias have forced radio stations to broadcast hate speech and that both sides in the conflict have pressured media to only report their views.

“It is very, very hard to report,” said a top official at the Catholic Radio Network, which has eight radio stations in South Sudan, one of which was forced off the air by fighting in the northern town of Malakal. “The journalists are afraid and the people are very afraid to talk to the journalists – sometimes on issues not really related to the crisis.”

The National Security Service, or NSS, has also reportedly confiscated press runs of at least two newspapers without giving a reason for doing so. The Juba Monitor's daily run of 1,500 copies has been seized on six occasions since December, a spokesman for the newspaper said by telephone from the South Sudanese capital.

“They are targeting the newspaper because our paper is telling the truth,” the newspaper official told IPI, requesting anonymity for safety reasons. “We are independent, we balance our news and they don't want that.”

IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi condemned the targeting of the media and the threats made by both sides in the conflict.

“It is precisely in times of uncertainty that civilians most need reliable, independent and regular information,” Trionfi said. “The reports we've been receiving from both local and international media are an outrage given the explicit guarantees of press freedom in the Constitution.

“Article 24 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression and the media 'without prejudice to public order, safety or morals' and we call on the government at all levels – including the security forces – to set the standard by honouring and protecting those rights.”

Government ministers have publicly warned journalists they could face prosecution if they report on security matters or interview opposition figures, media representatives told IPI.

The reported threats and other actions against journalists mark a sharp erosion of South Sudan's media environment since the outbreak of fighting in December. “It was not like this before,” the Juba Monitor official said. “Before, we could write strong stores and publish strong opinions and viewpoints.”

There have also been unconfirmed reports that the NSS sought to block the broadcasts of the independent Eye Radio and interrogated employees of the Juba station over its reports on peace talks between the warring factions that are being brokered by IGAD, the East African security and development organisation. One journalist at the station declined to comment, citing safety concerns.

On Monday, the United Nations accused opposition forces of killing “hundreds of South Sudanese and foreign civilians” in attacks on a hospital, places of worship and a U.N. compound in the northern town of Bentiu, and of forcing radio stations to broadcast “hate speech”.

The conflict broke out in December when President Salva Kiir, from the country's Dinka community, announced that former vice president Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, had tried to seize power. Fighting has raged since, forcing some 70,000 civilians to seek help at U.N. camps in the nation of more than 8 million.

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