Reuters reports that six journalists were arrested in South Sudan last week because of their alleged involvement in circulating a video online of President Salva Kiir Mayardit wetting himself at a public event.
“We are concerned because those who are detained now have stayed longer than what the law says,” Oyet Patrick Charles, president of the Union of Journalists of South Sudan, said.
The South Sudanese civil war is generally recognized as having ended in 2020, but tensions are still high between the nation’s different ethnic groups and political factions. Conflict and poor governance have exacerbated South Sudan’s human rights and welfare concerns. The 2021 Human Rights Watch report details additional stressors, including a lack of protections for journalists. Reporters Without Borders’ press index ranks South Sudan as the 128th freest country for journalists (out of 180 – below Mexico and above Nigeria), citing heavy government interference and censorship, occasionally enforced using violence, as key reasons for the low rating. According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 10 journalists have been killed in South Sudan since 2014.
Press freedom is important in well-established and developing countries alike. It connects communities, holds leaders accountable, and helps people make informed decisions. The Committee to Protect Journalists argues that free journalism is also essential to sustainable development and the fight against poverty, citing a 2012 study by Christine Kalenborn and Christian Lessman that found that democratic elections can mitigate and prevent corruption if certain press freedoms are maintained.
Media is also one of the only ways the world can connect with South Sudan and keep up to date with humanitarian efforts. More than that, media is a tool the government could use to connect with its people and begin working to develop infrastructure.
But journalists are not well protected in South Sudan.
In an article for International Center for Journalists, South Sudanese writer Garang Abraham Malak shared the stories of two journalists who experienced forced censorship and violence for their reporting. Journalist Oliver Modi related how he was kidnapped, tortured, and poisoned while being questioned about his politics before he could escape with his life. Radio station manager Koang Pal Chang, meanwhile, shared how his station was shut down after airing a clip of the opposition leader, Dr. Riek Machar. The station was also forced to apologize after airing a government-critical story.
Now, in what USAID Administrator Sarah Powers called a “blatant affront to press freedom,” six journalists have been detained for longer than the law allows. “Press must be able to do their jobs w/o fear of intimidation,” Powers tweeted. “They should be immediately released.” The Committee to Protect Journalists agreed, posting an article on their website calling for Sudanese authorities to “immediately and unconditionally release all journalists detained this week to ensure the press can work freely.”
South Sudan and its people are hurting. Amidst crises of post-war violence, rebuilding, climate change, and more, the government has chosen to take up arms against journalists in the name of securing power and authority. This kind of control can sow distrust and perpetuate abuse and corruption. South Sudan must release the arrested journalists and guarantee the freedoms of its press in order to move toward a peaceful tomorrow.
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