SOUTH SUDAN – 3 MAY 2023 As the world celebrates World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, journalists in South Sudan have said they still find it difficult to tell the truth and access public information from key public institutions.
Citing the recent visit of Pope Francis from 3-5 February, local journalists and media houses said they were blocked by security personnel from covering the pontiff’s arrival at the airport and later the function at the president’s office, among other events.
Journalist Wek Atak says security personnel blocked him from taking pictures when the Pope landed in Juba, yet foreign reporters had unhindered access.
“When we were covering the Pope’s visit, local journalists were not trusted by the security officials,” he said. “I remember when I tried to take photos using my phone, the national security personnel stopped me, yet I was duly accredited to cover the event while foreign journalists were allowed to take pictures.”
“When I tried to ask why they were leaving the foreign journalists, one military officer replied that it was his work to block me,” Atak narrates.
A South Sudan Broadcasting Corporation (SSBC) journalist, Majur Chol Kur, also says the state broadcaster’s team was almost denied access to cover Pope Francis’ arrival in Juba.
“During the visit of the Holy Father, the way journalists on the ground were treated was not easy. I remember when we first entered the airport, our names were not on the list that was submitted to the security operatives and they almost told us to go back,” he says. “It was a big challenge that we faced but later an official who was assigned to us followed up with the security people at the airport and our names were submitted again, approved and we were allowed to cover the Pope’s arrival.”
“One of the difficult things was that not every journalist was allowed to cover the event,” Chol adds.
Another Journalist, Agany Geng Ayiei, who founded the online Dalwuot Media, says security officers blocked him from covering the prayers the Pope officiated at the Dr. John Garang Mausoleum.
“They blocked me from doing live coverage during the prayers at the mausoleum because they said I was using an iPhone,” he explains. “I was, however, allowed to cover the Pope’s arrival in Juba using my Union of Journalists of South Sudan (UJOSS) identity card.”
Lack of access to public information
Access to public documents from key public institutions such as the petroleum, security, defense, interior, and finance ministries and the central bank and other public institutions also remains a challenge for journalists, media houses, academics, and the general public in South Sudan.
Reporters have also said there has been little or no access to President Salva Kiir’s office after a new press secretary, Lily Adhieu Martin Manyirl, was appointed in late September 2022.
According to local media houses, they are threatened when they requisition public information and are operating under security threats, and are sometimes kidnapped.
Oyet Patrick Charles, the chairperson for the Union of Journalists of South Sudan (UJOSS), says the media space in South Sudan is continuously shrinking.
“Press freedom or the space for journalists to do their work freely is still not okay. The issue of every article being read before being printed means there is no freedom and there is a very high level of censorship,” Oyet told Radio Tamazuj during an interview.
He urged the government to prepare free media and civic space to allow accurate coverage of elections in December 2024.
“Work needs to be done. This work needs journalists, civil society groups, etc. Politicians and the parliament need to work together to ensure that the ground is prepared,” he said. “Laws that are contradicting the constitution need to be repealed so that by the time we are heading for elections, the environment is free and good for the media to relay accurate information to the public so that people can make their own decisions.”
“If this happens and when the elections are over, the majority of the people will accept the results and we will not have any violence,” Oyet stated.
Article 24 of South Sudan’s constitution calls for freedom of expression, while Article 32 talks about access to information.
However, sections 7, 13, and 54 of the National Security Act, among others, give power to National Security Service to monitor and curtail the work of the media.
Presidential press secretary responds
Speaking to Radio Tamazuj in April during an exclusive interview for this article, Presidential Press Secretary Lily Adhieu, however rubbished claims by journalists that they face challenges when covering presidential events and have difficulty accessing information.
“All over the world, if there is any event at a presidential palace, not every journalist will be invited. We have a list of people that we invite to come in and cover and that is a small number that we want,” she said. “If you go to our page, we keep you updated and some media houses are even taking from our page and they are quoting whatever we have written, and the information is passed on.”
“Even in the White House in the United States or the neighbouring East African countries, not every journalist gets in to go cover,” Adhieu added.
She insisted that her office avails all information media houses can use on the president’s official website and Facebook page.
“I do not get it! Everything is on our website if you go to our page, even the Pope’s visit was covered live and this was done by my office in conjunction with the Ministry of Information,” Adhieu charged. “How is it difficult when we gave the journalists access to come in? There were some (journalists) at the airport and wherever. When you say that it is difficult, I do not get it. Can you emphasize that? If it is about the Pope’s visit, we accredited over 400 journalists from all over South Sudan. This was not done by me alone but in conjunction with the Media Authority and information ministry.”
The president’s mouthpiece said she needed specific complaints from the media fraternity so that she can address them.
“If you say journalists are complaining, I need specifics brought to my office so that I can answer,” Adhieu said.
Meanwhile, the renowned civil society activist and executive director of the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO), Edmund Yakani, says there is a persistent violation of press freedoms in South Sudan.
“At the closing of 2022 and the start of 2023, there were challenges for journalists. We saw the case of SSBC journalists and we have seen other similar incidents,” he said. “The situation is getting back to the worse situation and we hope that this can quickly be responded to and mitigated by the authorities.”
“Since we are expecting a political transition process where citizens are going to be involved in the constitutional making process and elections, there is a need to have a free press and freedom of expression,” Yakani added.
Recent violations against the media
In January 2023, the National Security Service arrested six SSBC staff for allegedly leaking a video showing President Salva Kiir wetting himself while commissioning a road in Terekeka in December 2022.
On 20 January 2023, Garang John, a senior SSBC journalist, was also arrested for supposedly knowing the video footage his six colleagues were arrested for.
On 30 January 2023, the Jonglei State government ordered the mandatory registration of all active journalists in the state.
On 2 February 2023, some journalists in Juba were denied press cards to cover Pope Francis’ visit by the Media Authority.
On 18 February 2023, Ladu Wani, the undersecretary at the information ministry who was also the head of the committee investigating the detained SSBC journalists, abrasively said the matter was administrative and had nothing to do with the press while being interviewed by Radio Tamazuj.
Via Radio Tamazuj