South Sudan’s journalists are being murdered and jailed. But could a new peace deal end the country’s war on press freedom?
- By Jason PatinkinJason Patinkin is a journalist covering East Africa.
JUBA, South Sudan — On Aug. 22, on the bare floor of a prison cell in the South Sudanese capital, Juba, journalist George Livio marked his 365th day behind bars. A reporter for a United Nations-run radio station, Livio was arrested a year ago by South Sudan’s internal spy agency, the National Security Services (NSS). He has not been charged with a crime, and a lawyer has been prevented from visiting him in prison. Although his arrest made headlines both inside and outside the country last year, a spokesman for the presidency refused even to acknowledge that he has been taken into custody.
Livio’s detention is emblematic of the rapid erosion of free-speech protections in South Sudan, which broke apart from the repressive government of Sudan in 2011 but now finds itself engulfed in a brutal, two-year-old civil war of its own. Even as an end to the fighting seems within reach — under intense international pressure, President Salva Kiir on Wednesday, Aug. 26, signed a peace deal with rebel leader and former Vice President Riek Machar — the government continues to tighten its grip on information and crack down on independent voices within areas of its control.
Illegal detentions, harassment of perceived critics, and unsolved killings are now commonplace. This month, while boarding a flight to peace talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Kiir threatened to kill journalists who report “against the country.”
“If anybody among [journalists] does not know that this country has killed people, we will demonstrate it one day, one time,” the president told reporters. Kiir walked back his comments days later under international pressure, but not before journalist Peter Julius Moi was shot dead by unknown gunmen. Moi’s murder — the seventh of a journalist this year — has had a chilling effect on Juba’s tiny and already beleaguered press corps, which declared a 24-hour news blackout over the weekend.
“Who will be working? It is now the sixth, the seventh” killing of a journalist this year, lamented Edward Terso Loku, the secretary-general of the Union of Journalists of South Sudan. “How many journalists do we have when we are just a new country?”
As Livio’s family prepares for a second year with him behind bars, journalists, activists, and opposition leaders here are also steeling themselves for further hostility from a government that appears willing to act outside the law to curtail perceived dissent.
“This [Livio] case is an example of abuse of power, impunity, disregard for institutions,” said Monyluak Alor Kuol, a lawyer dispatched by Amnesty International to investigate Livio’s detention. “It’s arbitrary. It has no justification.”
Livio was arrested last year in South Sudan’s Western Bahr el Ghazal state along with James Tharjath, a fellow employee at the U.N. Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS). A third UNMISS employee, Anthony Nyero from Eastern Equatoria state, has also been held by NSS since October 2014, according to UNMISS spokesperson Joe Contreras. All three are South Sudanese citizens.
At the time of Livio’s arrest, media reports alleged that Livio was picked up because he had quoted a rebel source in a recent radio piece. (South Sudan’s information minister has repeatedly warned reporters against airing the views of opposition sources, despite their professional obligation to do so.) But Kuol said a senior NSS official told him that Livio and the others were arrested because agents believed they were planning to rebel.
“There were no charges, but what he told me was that those people were associated with insurrection,” Kuol said, adding that the NSS official offered no evidence for his claim.
A relative who has visited Livio in prison also said that NSS agents accused the journalist of being a rebel, an allegation the relative denies. Instead, the relative suggested that his arrest could be an effort to settle old political scores, since Livio’s reporting has put him at odds with the Western Bahr el Ghazal state governor in the past.
The NSS could not be reached for comment, but Foreign Policy spoke to Ateny Wek Ateny, a spokesman for Kiir, under whom the NSS operates. Ateny said he had no knowledge of Livio’s case and that it would fall “far below what the president can sanction.” He added: “South Sudan has no political detainees.”
The relative who visited Livio said the imprisoned reporter is in good health, but that he and his fellow detainees have no mattresses, sheets, or mosquito nets. They are fed two simple meals per day and are forced to drink river water, according to the relative, requiring family members to bring extra sustenance to fill the gap.
Contreras said that UNMISS representatives have also regularly checked in on Livio and that the mission continues to pay his salary and has extended his contract at the radio station for another year. According to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s latest report on South Sudan to the Security Council, no further investigations into Livio have been conducted since April, and no charges have been filed.
South Sudanese law requires detainees to be charged and brought before a court within 24 hours, according to Kuol, the lawyer. He said prolonged detentions such as Livio’s are only permissible if ordered by the chief justice of South Sudan’s Supreme Court, who has made no such ruling in this case. But Kuol’s attempts to meet with his client — let alone win his release — have so far come up empty. He said he has inquired at various levels of the NSS, including at the offices of the director and deputy director. All his requests to meet with Livio have been denied.
UNMISS has also failed to secure its employees’ release. Contreras said the mission brings up the issue “at every opportunity,” and he described multiple “notes verbales,” delivered to South Sudan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that have registered the mission’s “displeasure” or have condemned the detentions. He said the mission has also sent “démarches … about the plight of our national staff colleagues to South Sudanese authorities at the highest levels, both here in Juba and at U.N. headquarters in New York.” The U.N. secretary-general has also condemned the detentions in three of his last four reports in the Security Council.
The anniversary of Livio’s imprisonment comes at a particularly dark time for South Sudanese journalists. Not only have reporters been murdered and detained, but the press corps here has had to witness the gradual suffocation of the country’s fledgling independent news media. This month, the NSS shuttered two newspapers and a radio production company in the span of a few days — the latest in a long list of abuses against media houses since the beginning of the war.
Veteran South Sudanese journalist Alfred Taban, who worked for decades in the notoriously repressive Sudanese capital, Khartoum, told FP that the climate for free expression in Juba is unlike any he has experienced.
“This one is worse than in Khartoum,” he says. “In Khartoum, they’d shut down one newspaper and so on, but to shut down three media outlets in a single [week]? This never happened in Khartoum.”
Tom Rhodes, the East Africa representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an international media rights group, described the press-freedom situation in South Sudan as “terrible.”
“Press laws ostensibly designed to protect the press, along with the constitution, are summarily ignored as security forces routinely harass and shutter journalist and media houses they deem too critical,” he said.
Journalists in Juba say they are taking additional precautions to ensure their safety, including by watching what they say. “Sometimes you have to censor yourself,” said Waakhe Simon Wudu, a reporter for Agence France-Presse and Voice of America, who said he has received threatening emails from government officials. “You sometimes have to think twice before you send a story to an editor because you will be weighing the implications that it will have on you.”
Journalists aren’t the only targets. A May report by Human Rights Watch alleged that the NSS and the military have held dozens of people in black sites around the country since the war began. More recent detainees include prominent government critics like former Western Equatoria Gov. Joseph Bakosoro, who was held without charge for four days in August, and small-time civil society activists like Driuni Jakani Driuni, who was detained for two months in a military barracks and beaten with plastic whips.
“I can’t count [how many lashes they gave me] because beating is painful … but it would be over 40 or 50,” Driuni told FP after he was released this month. He has since fled the country.
Opposition politicians have been harassed and prevented from traveling outside the country. Others have been killed, like James Bage, the speaker of Western Equatoria’s state parliament, or disappeared, like Peter Sule, leader of the opposition United Democratic Front. Both cases remain unsolved.
CPJ’s Rhodes said the silencing of opposition voices coincides with the government’s increased isolation abroad and the erosion of Kiir’s popularity at home. The government stands accused of committing war crimes and has been criticized for dragging its feet before signing Wednesday’s peace agreement.
Even if the peace deal signals an end to the violence currently engulfing parts of the country, it may not translate into an increase in press freedoms. On Aug. 22, the same day the government announced its intention to sign the agreement, NSS agents prevented four reporters from leaving Juba to cover a story in a former rebel enclave.
Samir Bol/AFP Photo/Getty Images