Media come under fire in South Sudan

Recent arrests of journalists and the killing of an outspoken blogger highlight worsening media climate.

In many countries, the gunning down of unarmed civilians by security forces would normally result in the arrest of those responsible. But in South Sudan, such an incident seems to have led to the arrests of several members of the media instead.

On December 9 in the town of Wau, at least nine civilians were confirmed killed when unarmed protesters were fired upon by unidentified men in uniform. Photographs and witness accounts of what happened that day were widely circulated, but it wasn’t until a week later that video footage of the incident emerged.

Al Jazeera was contacted by an anonymous source offering footage of what was described as “gross human rights violations”. The pictures, which were subsequently broadcast on the channel, showed what appeared to be a peaceful protest. As the demonstrators got closer to the armed men, a volley of bullets was fired and the crowd turned and ran. When the camera returned to the scene, bodies could be seen lying on the ground, some surrounded by blood and some apparently dead.

South Sudan’s officials have denied the involvement of the police in the shooting. 

But instead of bringing closure to the particularly bloody incident, things took a bizarre turn a month later when, on January 4, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued an alert claiming that two state broadcast journalists were being held without charge in Wau.

The CPJ statement cited claims by the Catholic Radio Network that security agents were accusing the state media of “providing footage of the clashes to international broadcaster Al Jazeera”. The CPJ named the detained journalists as Louis Pasquale and Ashab Khamis, both employees of South Sudan TV (SSTV). Both have now been released but a third man, Kamilo Luchiano, who is the director of political and news programmes at SSTV in Wau, remains under arrest.

Arrests over ‘faulty equipment’

South Sudanese authorities say the men aren’t journalists but managers at SSTV, and that they’re not accused of any crime relating to journalism but of “administrative faults”. According to the governor of Western Bahr El Ghazal state, Rizik Zakaria, it was their failure to cover a speech given by South Sudan’s president on Christmas Eve that landed the men in trouble with security agents. 

“The security forces are heavy-handed towards the media and in December 2012 an opinion writer was killed in Juba.”

– Reporters Without Borders

“The director of programmes gave a tape recorder that wasn’t functioning to a subordinate to cover the speech when he had tape recorders that do function. This was sabotage; he should have given him a functioning tape recorder,” Zakaria said.

Not many journalists are convinced by the explanation that the three were arrested for simply handing out faulty equipment. The reported harassment of several other journalists during the same period in the town has fuelled their suspicion that the arrests could be part of a wider design to browbeat the media.

Two journalistis from the UN station Radio Miraya had to seek refuge within the UN base in Wau before they could be airlifted to Juba for their safety. According to those involved, security agents were asking questions about who had supplied video footage of the shooting to Al Jazeera.

This incident came barely a month after a prominent blogger and columnist who wrote under the name Isaiah Abraham was killed at his home in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Abraham was an outspoken critic of the government and had received death threats before his murder.

The killing highlighted the deteriorating media climate in a young country barely 18 months old. Having split in 2011 from Sudan – ranked 170th in the press freedom index – South Sudan ranked 111th out of 179 states last year.

Ominous turn

But the media organisation Reporters Without Borders warns that its ranking is expected to slip in 2013. “The security forces are heavy-handed towards the media and in December 2012 an opinion writer was killed in Juba,” it said in a statement to Al Jazeera.

It is said that the problem lies with many of the people who work for South Sudan’s government and security services now. Having worked in Khartoum earlier, they may have imbibed the bad habits of the government there, including its disdain for journalists.

Reporters Without Borders’ bleak outlook for South Sudan in the current year has already taken an ominous turn. 

Sudan Tribune, an online publication, said one of its correspondents had been threatened with arrest on January 8. The correspondent had two days earlier quoted a security officer in an article, displeasing the official.

The publication says it doesn’t know what their reporter is charged with, but assumes that it is connected to this article.

Last heard, the correspondent was packing up his belongings and heading to a safe house for the night.

Source: Al Jazeera