As Sudanese police fire tear gas at crowds of anti-government protesters in Khartoum and go after organizers calling for nationwide rallies against President Omar al-Bashir, media outlets in neighboring South Sudan have to fight for their right to cover the deadly unrest.
Earlier this week, the decision by the South Sudan Media Authority to issue a warning and threats to an independent newspaper Al-Watan sparked condemnation from members of the civil society and the South Sudan Editors Forum in Juba over what they call Sudan’s interference with the country’s media law.
In a letter dated January 7, South Sudan’s Media Authority warned editor-in-chief of the Juba-based daily Arabic newspaper Michael Rial Christopher against publishing articles about the ongoing protests in neighboring Sudan, demanding that he apologizes to the Sudanese government or risks being shut down.
“In my opinion article, I wrote that Sudan for a long time has been supporting militias against South Sudan and still there are militias of Thomas Dhel who are in Sudan causing insecurity in South Sudan. Also, still, there is a problem in Abyei and Keviakenji, and Bashir is the one causing all these,” Christopher told The Globe Post.
“I said I am standing with the Sudanese in their protest to change Bashir and bring somebody who could bring peace to both Sudan and South Sudan.”
He expressed an opinion which the Sudan government was not pleased with, calling it an incitement of violence from a neighboring country.
Christopher said Sudan Acting Ambassador to South Sudan Isham Iddris quickly approached Al-Watan newspaper for a response, which the paper did publish. But the embassy went ahead to complain to the Media Authority for more reprisal actions anyway.
“They summoned us on January 7, and we went and had a meeting with the director of administration Elias. They told us to stop with immediate effect writing or publishing an article or opinion that has a link to the unrest in Sudan. And then the same day I receive a warning letter prohibiting [me] from writing on Sudan protest and that there is a penalty if I don’t write an apology within 72 hours,” Christopher said.
Christopher said he would not abide by the call because he did not commit any crime and was just using his right of expression.
Alwatan’s 72 hours ultimatum for an apology to the Sudan government has ended, and no one knows what the next move of the Media Authority will be.
Christopher said he has been receiving phone threats from unknown people over his opinion pieces.
Acting Managing Director of the Media Authority Sapana Abuyi declined to comment on the situation saying he would address the media when the time comes.
Civil Society Condemnation
The South Sudan Media Authority was formed in February 2016 as an autonomous Media regulatory body to oversee the media industry in the country in terms of regulation, media development, and issuance of broadcasting licenses. This development was welcomed and praised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
“This [agency] is expected to contribute to a vibrant, independent and pluralistic media in South Sudan, by curbing the increased rate of incidents affecting journalists, end impunity on crimes against journalists as well as create an enabling environment for the media to operate in,” the organization said at the time.
However, by issuing warnings and threats to an independent media house like Al-Watan newspaper, the authority has violated the media act it is supposed to defend, according to Koang Pal Chang, Chairman of the South Sudan National Editors Forum in Juba.
“Media authority has no right to judge who is wrong and who is not but they are supposed to forward this case to the Media Complain Council or board, and if they are not there, and if they think this story has damaged the image of Sudan, they should follow the right procedure but not telling the government of South Sudan or media authority to ask that media house not to write about events happening to our neighbor and, to me, the media authority has violated the act itself,” Chang told The Globe Post.
Chang added that Sudan must respect the laws and sovereignty of South Sudan.
“When you read the warning letter written to Al-Watan, [it] is like the Media Authority acted as a representative of the government of Sudan, not as an institution that is supposed to regulate and act independently when addressing issues of media in South Sudan because media authority has completely failed to differentiate between an opinion article and editorial.”
According to activists, it is still not safe for both journalists and independent media houses to operate in South Sudan.
Edmon Yakani, Executive Director of the Juba-based Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, a local Civil Society group, said people were more afraid to speak to the media than to someone holding a gun because, according to him, there are acts of reprisal and media restrictions.
“The reason they fear camera, is that they look at the camera as a source of exposure to potential risk, rather than a gun that can be shot directly and you know that that person is shooting you,” Yakani told The Globe Post.
The latest move by the Media Authority is an attack on the media in South Sudan, Yakani added.
“I don’t think there is any problem that requests Al-Watan to be threatened or given a hard time; that is why I am appealing for a constructive dialogue that will not lead to Al-Watan may be being shut down or any journalist of Al-Watan lives at risk.”
South Sudan Media Landscape
Nevertheless, the media landscape in South Sudan has greatly improved since the establishment of the Media Authority nearly two years ago, according to Yakani, with the number of journalists being killed or arrested falling down significantly.
“Before the functionality of the Media Authority, the incidents towards journalist was ranked at at least three to five per week, and some of those incidents are not state-directed,” he explained. “It is if any journalist wrote an article about any particular office and that information touches a particular person, that particular person will call anybody within the law enforcement agency and direct them to deal with that particular journalist.”
At the same time, the number of arbitrary arrests of journalists has declined, but Yakanisaid the Media Authority lacks funds to institutionalize some of its parallel bodies, like the Media Complain Council.
South Sudan is one of the five countries that have been implementing the U.N. plan of action on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity. In 2015, seven journalists were killed, and the country was ranked by the Committee to Protect Journalists as the second worst in Africa, and fifth globally. Since the conflict broke out in South Sudan in 2013, more than 12 journalists have been killed across the country, including American journalist Christopher Allen.