Gai Alier John (John Actually)
Since our independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of civil war in the name of freedom, 11 South Sudanese journalists have been killed. Seven in 2015 alone.
Despite calls from the UN and others for those responsible to be held to account, not one person has been prosecuted and no single case had been tried in the court of law.
Unless the world rises up against this intimidation and ends impunity for the enemies of a free press, journalism will soon lose all meaning and purpose in South Sudan.
Journalists have no judicial protection. The system is undermined by rich and powerful individuals who consider themselves to be “right-thinking members” of the state.
The law allows the security services to arrest and detain anyone for questioning without prior notice. But some security officers go even further, by torturing and even killing journalists whose reports fall within their banned categories.
A source who works for the national security services described to me how they handle journalists that appear on their blacklist.
“If you are marked for any reason, we first give you warnings three to four times”, he explained.
“The warnings can be sent as a text message, or your close friend can be used to deliver the message or drop a warning letter to your doorstep. If you don’t change, then action can now be taken. You can be arrested and taken to a place where you will never see the sun again. Others can be killed without arresting them”.
The suffering of South Sudanese journalists at the hands of ruthless security agents has deeply affected us psychologically and physically.
The term “unknown gunmen” is widely used in South Sudanese media to describe those who have killed or attacked journalists, activists, or others, even if the suspect is obvious and could be traced.
Law enforcement rarely makes arrests and often tries to hide the fact that state-led killers are suspected to be perpetrators, claiming the assailants were “unknown gunmen”.
Intimidation through killing, kidnap and beating of journalists is the bluntest but far from the only method of control the government uses to muzzle the free conduct of journalism.
In 2012 President Kiir wrote a letter to 75 officials who were believed to have pocketed four billion dollars from the public purse. When media reported on the story, security officers responded by summoning editors and journalists from private news outlets and warning them not write anything about the letter or risk being jailed.
In the same year, two private newspapers, The Citizen and Al Masir, faced a costly court case after Pagan Amum, who was then Secretary-General of the ruling party, was named in a corruption scandal. Each newspaper was ordered to up to pay damages of $37,000.
Tipping off the gatekeepers, many journalists are convinced that national security agents have been deployed undercover to their media workers as employees.
“We had a guy who was working as a language assistant at our station. Two months after we hired him, lots of our stories had been leaked to the security before airing them”, James Moga, a senior editor for Peace Radio FM explained.
“As a result, we had been raided by security more than two times and our station was closed for some days (26-28 August 2016 and 16-17 January 2017), and some of our staff were ordered for questioning”.
Stories about corruption and human rights abuses perpetrated by senior members of the government and military are most likely to trigger sanctions.
Security agents also order the printed press in Juba to scrap news stories that are critical of the SPLM-led government and army in Juba.
These accumulative threats have caused a paradigm shift in media coverage of sensitive political stories. Journalists who no longer want to be targeted chose non-controversial angles to report on and avoid some stories altogether.
With the exception of Radio Mirraya, which is run by the UN mission, journalists are paid extremely poorly and have little security for their families, especially considering that one income often has to support an extended family.
Many of my colleagues have left the profession for safer more lucrative jobs with NGOs and UN agencies.
The result of all this is that journalism in South Sudan often fails to live up to ethical standards and act independently of government narratives.
However, some online media outlets that operate from outside the country are able to tell meaningful stories with more independence and less fear of reprisals.
But to do this they have to make a huge trade-off in terms of transparency. Bylines are hardly ever used and their reporters often file their stories in the evening once their day job is over with one of the media companies based in Juba.
While this can be a way around self-censorship, the anonymity of the author and the knowledge that the article has been edited in a neighbouring country, or even Europe or North America makes many distrustful. Their ownership and funding are often hard to ascertain. There are arguments
for this way of operating but it makes them easier to discredit by those who want to question what they publish.
Working in this way also inhibits the usual editorial process and proximity to your colleagues that helps editors to spot biases and inaccuracies that can easily creep into reporting in such a polarised and insecure environment.
It is imperfect but, for now, there are no better options available.
Note: CPJ claims that 7 journalists have been killed since 2011 as they apply stringent criteria about whether they were killed in the line of duty.
An abridged history of attacks on journalists in South Sudan
9 July 2011 – South Sudan became Africa’s 54th independent nation state after a six-year peace process that had ended decades who civil war against various the Sudanese government. South Sudan’s government is formed from the main armed rebel movement (SPLA) its political wing (SPLM).
18 November 2011 – Ngor Aguot Garang, editor of the Juba-based English language daily Destiny, and Dengdit Ayok, one of his reporters are released from prison in Juba. They were held for two weeks after criticising the President daughter’s choice of groom.
31 May 2012 – Bonifacio Taban, a reporter for the Sudan Tribune website, is arrested and detained for six hours by an army general after he wrote about the poor conditions that widows of soldiers were living in. Taban was warned, upon his release, that he shouldn’t write a story of that kind about SPLA if he valued his life.
5 December 2012 – Unknown gunmen kill Isaiah Diing Abraham Chan Awuol, a popular journalist and political commentator in Juba. His relatives say Abraham received anonymous text messages asking him to stop writing critically about the government.
2 January 2013 – South Sudanese security agents arrest and torture five journalists in Wau who are accused of not covering a speech delivered An abridged history of attacks on journalists in South Sudan by President Salva Kiir in the town on 24th December 2012. Some of these journalists worked for a government-run television.
25 January 2015 – Five journalists (Adam Juma, Boutros Martin, Dalia Marko, Musa Mohammed, Randa George) are murdered around Wau town while travelling in a convoy with local officials.
15 December 2015 – South Sudan plunges into a civil war triggered by a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his then Vice President, Riek Machar.
20 May 2015 – Radio Tamazuj journalist, Pow James Raeth, dies after being caught in gunfire between warring groups after leaving an NGO in Akobo.
5 August 2015 – Three independent media outlets are shut down by the government.
17 August 2015 – President Kiir threatens to kill journalists ‘working against the country’. It is later claimed his words were taken out of context.
20 August 2015 – Peter Julius Moi, of The New Nation newspaper in Juba is shot dead by “unknown gunmen”. Moi’s murderers approached him in a numberless vehicle. He was shot in the back three bullets times.
11 July 2016 – Community radio John Gatluak Manguet is killed by government forces during an outbreak of violence in Juba between government and rebel forces.
26 September 2016 – The body of the renowned journalist, Isaac Vuni, is found near his home. He had been kidnapped three months earlier on 4 June 2016 by men armed in military uniforms, according to his family.
10 October 2016 – Malek Bol is found struggling for his life after being kidnapped by security agents and taken to an unknown location for three days. Bol’s editor at the Almugif Arabic newspaper said that is captors accused him of abusing the president on social media. He had been beaten and had hot plastic dripped onto his body.
26 May 2017 – US freelancer Christopher Allen is killed while covering the conflict.
9 March 2018 – Authorities suspend UN-backed station Radio Miraya.
Gai Alier John, who often writes under the pen name John Actually, has worked as a journalist for the Sudan Radio Service, The New Nation newspaper, and the Sudan Tribune news website. He is the former communications officer for the Catholic Relief Service and is now a master degree student at Uganda Christian University in Kampala.
Main photo: South Sudan marks World Press Freedom Day – Unmiss Media (Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)