South Sudan Yet to Embark on Road to Civil Liberties

After promising but hesitant initial steps, the Republic of South Sudan is at a crucial point in its one-year-old existence. It has thus far benefited from sustained international attention, which has encouraged it to protect fundamental freedoms. But once the post-independence honeymoon is over, there lurks a danger that it could slide into repression and dictatorship instead of continuing the positive progress, according to an investigative report from Reporters Without Borders.

It was largely for the sake of freedom that the South Sudanese population decided in 2011 to break away from Khartoum. Expectations are high in that new state. That's why South Sudanese Deputy Information and Broadcasting Minister Atem Yaak Atem's showed elation when he noticed that, on the 2012 Reporters Without Borders freedom of information map, South Sudan is colored orange (for "noticeable problems") whereas Sudan is colored black (for "very serious situation") . In Juba, "beating Khartoum" is permanent challenge and potential source of satisfaction. "We do things very differently here," Atem told Reporters Without Borders. "We have never experienced prior censorship, for example. Khartoum's laws were not implemented here."

Promises of freedom are so widespread that any disappointments in this area will be sorely felt. Though South Sudan may be able to claim to offer more freedom than Sudan, Khartoum's heritage is still felt everywhere. According to a South Sudanese consultant, "the authorities in Juba were brought up in the Khartoum school, and now they are getting ready to put what they learned about repression into practice". Information and broadcasting minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin, who is also government spokesman, does not conceal the government's use of the media. In fact, he justifies it. "In a conflict or post-conflict situation, the government's communication with the people is crucial," he said. "Our job is to inform the population but also to transmit messages. The media are a tool for us." Getting the government's message across is the priority. News and information can wait.

Although enjoying a degree of freedom, the media are still in terrible shape. They have started virtually from scratch and the environment in which they have to operate is barely viable. As media outlets are created, others disappear and their number continues to be low. Without external support, it is hard for news media to survive and almost all those that have survived for any length of time have foreign funding. Furthermore, the resumption of border hostilities in recent months has made it harder to access information and has complicated news reporting. Barnaba Marial Benjamin boasts of never having imposed any restriction on the movements of journalists in South Sudan, but access to remote areas is difficult and dangerous. It is virtually impossible for news organizations to get to the war zones in South Sudan.

The number one problem raised by all the people Reporters Without Borders talked to during its visit to Juba is the brutality of the security forces and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), as South Sudan's armed forces are called. Journalists are rarely subjected to formal arrest, but they are often briefly detained and beaten. Violence and intimidation are common. Last year, Miraya FM compiled a report on the increase in police involvement in crime. Shortly after it was broadcast, the journalist who did the report was beaten. "It's a classic case," said Jacob Akol, the head of the Association For Media Development in South Sudan (AMDISS). "All this goes completely unpunished. The interior ministry should be held responsible for these abuses."

As a direct consequence of this brutality and the failure to punish it, journalists are afraid and censor themselves. The comments of a young woman journalist employed by a foreign news outlet were revealing. She told Reporters Without Borders: "Of course I censor myself. Yesterday (May 13, 2012), a woman was shot dead in broad daylight in Juba... It's an incredible story and we ought to cover it, but I think I'd better not investigate it. Firstly, because I don't really have the resources and secondly, and even more so, because the security forces could come looking for me." She added: "Let's be serious. I am a woman. You are physically abused in prison. They can do terrible, hideous things to you. So I prefer to take care."

Journalists reporting on the war situation usually resign themselves to being tools of disinformation and propaganda. "The United Nations and NGOs say nothing so we have no choice but to repeat what the government says," a reporter for foreign media said. The few newspapers on both sides of the border that try not to be used find an accusing finger pointed at them. "If we try to be objective according to western standards (...) we are branded as traitors and accused of not defending the national interest," the Sudanese reporter, political columnist and media consultant Faisal Salih said.

The media are in urgent need of a legal framework. With much to be done to construct the South Sudanese state and progress being hampered by the economic crisis and tension with Sudan, the government and parliament do not see media legislation as a priority. They nonetheless need to appreciate its importance. Media laws would establish ground rules for a sector that has none and would end the reign of the arbitrary. They could protect journalists and media, which would as a result be better able to do their job of reporting the news. They would also enable this young state to put freedom of expression and information at the heart of its system of values and governance.

A year after its independence, South Sudan must make a decisive and historic choice as regards its media. Reporters Without Borders urges the authorities to choose the road of openness, diversity, tolerance and development. The alternative is internal tension, increasing use of bellicose and ultranationalist propaganda and recourse to censorship and repression to deal with criticism and dissent -- a choice similar to that made by Eritrea, one of the world's last totalitarian dictatorships and Africa's biggest prison for journalists, a choice that would have dramatic consequences for the population and civil liberties in South Sudan.

To read the full Reporters Without Borders report on South Sudan prepared by Ambroise Pierre, Head of Africa Desk, please click here.

Special thanks to Eliza Lajoie.