S. Sudanese journalists decry security clampdown

A recent national security bill passed by the parliament was decried by journalists who fear that it will undermine their work and may expose them to threats and intimidation.

S. Sudanese journalists decry security clampdown

World Bulletin/News Desk

Working in a young nation gripped by political unrest, journalists in South Sudan ply their trade under constant threat of intimidation, arrest and hostility, with most of those affected being local journalists working with private media houses.

"Journalists are harassed by security agents on a daily basis," Alfred Taban, a veteran journalist and chairman of the Association of Media Development in South Sudan, told The Anadolu Agency.

For example, Solomon Jok, a staff photographer for daily newspaper The New Nation, was apprehended by security personnel after he took photos of a fuel station on the outskirts of Juba at the height of a fuel crisis in October.

"They arrested me at Pity Oil [a fuel station in Gudele on the outskirts of Juba] after a security [agent] asked me to produce a letter from the Ministry of Information. I gave him the letter, but he asked me why it was not stamped by the National Security Services," Jok recounted.

"They took me away and detained me for four hours before releasing me, but confiscated my camera, which stayed with them for four days," he said.

"They copied all my photos and warned me that photos of petrol stations affect national security," he added.

Yet he considered himself lucky to be released on the same day without being tortured, asserting that his swift release had been due to the intervention of top government officials.

"Some ambassadors who knew me called them [the security agents] and asked why they had detained me," Jok said, without giving their identities.

"The NGO Forum [a body that oversees the work of nongovernmental organisations in the country] also followed up on the matter immediately and I was released," he said, thankfully.

Following the start of the conflict between the government and rebel forces late last year, security agents have maintained a large presence at several institutions, including public offices, private institutions and markets – even on the streets of Juba and other cities.

Dhieu William, a radio journalist, was also subject to a bad experience with the security agencies when he took to the streets of Juba in October to do a live traffic broadcast.

While speaking on his phone to the studio from a custom roundabout at around 5pm, a time when that roundabout usually experiences heavy traffic flow, an incident occurred in which two men on a motorcycle tried to snatch a woman’s bag - a crime that is very common in Juba.

"I tried to go on air for this because the incident caused a big jam on the road, and I tried to explain about that incident that caused the jam," he said.

"As I was talking on air, I didn’t know somebody was standing beside me and was listening to what I was saying and as soon as I finished my report, a guy asked me 'who was it you called?'" Dhieu narrated.

Dhieu was taken off-guard when the man, who turned out to be a security agent, kicked him in the groin, slapped him in the face and threw him to the ground. He then confiscated Dhieu's radio, phone and other gadgets, but did not make an arrest.

"He confiscated the phone I was talking with to the studio guys and people came in because he assaulted me,” Dhieu lamented.

Although reported, such incidents have always gone unpunished or even investigated by the authorities.

"This is not particularly about me only but this is among the challenges journalists are facing, including the way the security acts with arrogance," Dhieu told AA.

"We tried to talk to the Ministry of Information [which runs the media affairs in the country] about these practices but up to now, they only say they are following up," he added.

But this "follow-up," however, has since been a lip service, while more testimonies similar to those of Dhieu and Jok are reported by several local journalists who spoke of incidents of torture, arrest and intimidation - mostly with a sense of impunity.

Earlier this year, four journalists including the editor of Catholic-run Radio Bhakita were arrested and detained for four days in September for reporting comments from a rebel spokesperson who accused the government army of not abiding with the cessation of hostilities agreement.

The problem ended after the intervention of President Salva Kiir who ordered security agents to allow the station it to resume broadcast.

Taban himself told AA that he has never been an exception to security harassments.

"In South Sudan here, yes I have been placed under some untidy situations," he revealed while recalling a story he published on his Juba Monitor newspaper which led to his arrest and interrogation.

"In 2012, we had written a story about a student from Nuer tribe who was killed near the house of the then interior minister Salva Mathok and the latter was not happy, and became even angrier when the Nuer people accused him of killing the student," Taban recalled.

"I was on a trip to Nairobi when police arrested my managing editor Michael Koma and they said they would not release him until I come home. So when I came back, I went to the police and I was kept for eight hours," he noted. "I was not comfortable completely. An interview which should have taken a few minutes took eight hours in the police station."

Taban, now the editor in chief of Juba Monitor, said that even media houses have not been excused from security crackdowns.

“At the Juba Monitor, many of our issues have been confiscated just because they [authorities] were not happy with some of our reporting. The Citizen (another newspaper daily in Juba) has also been confiscated a number of times, Bhakita radio was taken off-air and its journalists arrested and media houses have lost huge sums of money because of that,” he said.

"We believe that what they are doing is not right," Taban added.

Dialogue

Yet, while stating that "a lot of the problems are caused by the security [agencies]," Taban believes that not all the problems facing journalists are caused by the security.

"We, the South Sudanese journalists, also lack some ethics and that is why I am currently moving around in all the media houses to sensitize journalists on the code of ethics or the rules of the job to avoid trouble with the government and to help journalists do their work well,” Taban told AA.

"We are trying to help journalists know how they can do the job better and not to step on the toes of the government and also not to make the general public lose confidence in their work," he said.

While commending a recent media act put in place by the government, Taban lamented a clause that deals with defamation.

"We had suggested that defamation should be treated as a civil case, but under the law it is being treated as a criminal case and this is very bad because a journalist can be sent to jail," the veteran journalist said.

Moreover, a recent national security bill passed by the parliament was decried by journalists who fear that it will undermine their work and may expose them to threats and intimidation.

Under the bill, security agents have the right to make arrests without a warrant in case of possible threats to national security.

"Many journalists feel this bill was made to crack down on them…This will make journalists fear following sensitive stories," Taban said.

In order to reach a common ground, Taban said, a series of meetings had been held between journalist representatives and the security organs, especially to discuss the issue of security agents' treatment of media professionals.

"Now, we are conducting dialogue with the security forces, and hold meetings between the security personnel, the police, national security and the army," Taban said. "These meetings have started and we call them media security dialogue."

Earlier this year, international rights watchdogs Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in a joint report concerning media clampdown in South Sudan, urged the National Security Services (NSS) to stop seizing and shutting down newspapers as well as harassing, intimidating, and unlawfully detaining journalists.

"The government clampdown takes place at a time when South Sudan most needs independent voices to contribute to discussions about how to end the political crisis and internal armed conflict," the report quoted Elizabeth Ashamu Deng, South Sudan researcher at Amnesty International, as saying.

She also decried "abuses by the National Security Service – an institution that still has no law governing it," saying such violations have contributed to "a growing atmosphere of fear among journalists and human rights defenders," she added.

Last Mod: 02 Aralık 2014, 13:30
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