Truth and debate fall victim to ‘national security’ rhetoric amid South Sudan’s crisis

Alex Neve, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada
– in Juba, South Sudan

“Stop publishing articles on federalism”

That is the warning media outlets in South Sudan received in late June, through phone calls and visits from government security officers. 

The National Security Service had decided that it was a threat to “national security” to discuss federalism – an approach to governance embraced by states around the world and already a feature of the interim South Sudanese Constitution. There was no written decree to back up their ominous warning. 

The Juba Monitor’s unswerving Editor-in-Chief, Alfred Taban, was outraged. So he decried the move in a forceful editorial on 1 July. He announced that his paper would not comply with a demand that he considered to be unconstitutional, an assault on freedom of expression and, ultimately, an impediment to national security itself.

And national security responded. The next day all copies of the popular daily newspaper were seized in the early hours of the morning, keeping it out of readers’ hands. It wasn’t the first time that has happened to Alfred Taban and the Juba Monitor.

The Juba Monitor is not the only media outlet under siege. On 7 July national security seized all copies of The Citizen. On 3 July, the paper had printed a letter written by the country’s Minister of Information, condemning any censorship of articles about federalism. Then, on 5 July, a front page article covered a strong statement from the South Sudan Human Rights Commission similarly rejecting “federalism censorship”. As unbelievable as it sounds, The Citizen was punished for reporting on comments made by a Minister and the country’s national human rights body.

Articles, opinion pieces, radio interviews and television coverage looking at federalism are part of a wider, very necessary debate that is so essential in South Sudan, the world’s youngest state that will mark its third anniversary of independence on 9 July. At a time such as this, the country urgently needs a national conversation about lasting solutions to the political crisis and internal armed conflict in recent months that have led to a massive human rights and humanitarian catastrophe.

The government should encourage and welcome the debate; not penalize and shut it down.

Freedom of expression under attack

The fiat about federalism only adds to a growing list of recent measures that send a clear message that freedom of expression is under attack in South Sudan. The National Security Service similarly cited security concerns when journalists were earlier warned not to quote individuals involved with the armed opposition. Reporters, editors, publishers and broadcasters face increasing intimidation, threats and harassment. Some have been assaulted, arrested or expelled from the country. Media houses have been robbed or had equipment confiscated. And there is mounting censorship, including the seizure of newspapers.

We were shown reports documenting 70 serious incidents against journalists in the country, particularly in Juba, over the past nine months alone. The pattern is clear. The crackdown is intensifying.

The media crackdown’s troubling legacy

Before independence in July 2011, Alfred Taban endured long years of media repression in Sudan when he worked as a journalist in Khartoum. But he describes what is happening now in South Sudan as more troubling. As he told us, “in Khartoum we expected that [the Sudanese authorities] would view us as enemies; here we are supposed to be among brothers.”

Against this backdrop, a long overdue initiative to adopt media legislation in South Sudan has stalled. The legislative package is not perfect, but is a step in the right direction. It was adopted by Parliament in July 2013, it was sent to President Salva Kiir for approval. One year later no one seems to know when, or even if, the President will sign it into law.

The National Security Service has played an active role monitoring and regulating the media, particularly since the conflict broke out on 15 December, purportedly to protect national security. It has summoned journalists and members of civil society, issued oral directives, and ordered at least one publication to shut down. There is no legal foundation for such acts—there is in fact no law governing the National Security Service.

The combination of a legislative vacuum and a media crackdown is deeply troubling. Many people here have suggested that the two are connected.

The wider crisis

And then there is the wider human rights context.

South Sudan is still reeling from the massive human rights violations and staggering humanitarian catastrophe unleashed when clashes erupted within the country’s military, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, on the night of 15 December 2013. Fighting quickly spilled out from the barracks, and civilians – first in Juba and then throughout the country – were targeted.

The ensuing violence between forces loyal to President Kiir and those who have taken up arms for his former Vice President Riek Machar, has been marked by widespread and shockingly brutal war crimes and crimes against humanity in many parts of the country. Both sides are guilty. Our report issued in May, Nowhere safe: Civilians under attack in South Sudan, made that very clear.

There are no reliable estimates of the numbers who have been killed. In January the International Crisis Group reported that it is at least 10,000. That was six months ago.

Almost 1.5 million people have fled from their homes. Some 400,000 have escaped to neighbouring countries as refugees; 1.1 million remain internally displaced (IDPs). Of those, 100,000 particularly vulnerable IDPs have been given shelter inside UN peacekeeping bases, an unprecedented move by the UN. But with widespread insecurity and hostility around them, many of those sites have become virtual detention camps, locked up to keep danger out; leaving women, men and children imprisoned inside.

Meanwhile a ‘cessation of hostilities’ agreement between the two forces is regularly breached and rumours swirl that both sides are rearming, recruiting and readying for another round of fighting.

‘No such thing as justice’

There has been no accountability for these terrible crimes. A presidential committee has been set up to investigate, but very few people know what they are investigating and how they are doing it. That does nothing to instill confidence that the crisis is soon to end. A leader in one of the IDP sites at the UN bases put it bluntly to us: “there is no such thing as justice here.”

Internationally, the African Union (AU) has initiated a Commission of Inquiry to “investigate the human rights violations and other abuses committed during the armed conflict in South Sudan”. That Commission presented an Interim Report to the AU in late June.

All of this as the country readies to mark the 3rd anniversary of independence on 9 July. Now is the time for a full commitment to protecting human rights in South Sudan.

One easy step forward would be to stop the media crackdown. Respecting freedom of expression is not a threat to national security in South Sudan. Quite the contrary; it is at the very heart of protecting human rights, restoring security and bringing the country’s devastating crisis to an end.

Read more

South Sudan: Civilians killed and raped as ethnically-motivated violence spirals and famine looms (News story, 8 May 2014)
South Sudan: Nowhere safe: Civilians under attack in South Sudan (Report, 8 May 2014)