One of the world’s newest governments turned three this month, but for freedom of the press it wasn’t something to celebrate.
In South Sudan, The Juba Monitor, run by Editor-in-Chief Alfred Taban, is facing crackdowns after refusing to heed government warnings to censor itself. It’s nothing new for Taban, an accomplished journalist who started his own paper while working in Khartoum, Sudan. Under the repression of various Sudanese heads of state, including President Omar al Bashir’s government, he expected crackdowns on a near daily basis.
The government would often pay him visits, confiscating his paper or demanding he remove articles and replace them with something less inflammatory. This was a move he often refused, leaving sections of the newspaper blank, to show the people the government had forced him to remove an article.
He also faced intimidation, arrest and even torture, recalling a time when his prison guard forced him to stare at the sun before beating him mercilessly. His crime? He reported on the turnout for a protest.
However, the marginalized area of South Sudan, which was built out of nothing and advocated for political autonomy, held promise for Taban. He moved his workshop there the day before they declared national independence. It was in this newfound state that people expected civil and political rights would prevail.
In Taban’s own words, “in Khartoum we expected that [the Sudanese authorities] would view us as enemies; here we are supposed to be among brothers.” Taban, who worked as a BBC correspondent in Sudan for years, has always been a staunch opponent of censorship, even in situations where it was commonplace. Yet now, despite his high hopes for South Sudan, their National Security Service (NSS) is working to ensure the past is repeated.
The NSS’ power comes from the fact that South Sudan has no governing body to mandate the media, and so the NSS that enters the picture when government bodies disapprove of a story. Human Rights Watch has collected a number of stories detailing how NSS members have arrested, assaulted and even threatened to kill a number of journalists if they refuse to drop a story.
One journalist, who had reported on the plight of army widows, was detained for hours, his equipment seized, and was told if he wrote something about the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) again, he would be killed.
Yet for journalists like Alfred Taban, this just translates to “work harder.” When the government came to warn him to stop writing articles on South Sudan’s push towards federalism, he published a scathing editorial in reply. He followed up with another article, two days later, regarding the federalism debate. And when his newspapers were seized, he still refused to back down.
Instead of pulling the story, or sweeping the discussion under the rug, Taban simply took the story to the Juba Monitor’s website, which detailed the seizure of over 15,000 copies of the newspaper, and explained why a debate on federalism was warranted.
“I will not keep quiet” he said in a recent interview. “Our struggle now is the issue of underdevelopment, because the money has been looted by the people in the government.”
Complicating matters further, South Sudan is also in the middle of armed rebel conflict, between the current President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar. While Machar and his rebels have advocated for federalism, making it a hot button issue, Kiir has intoned that national security needs to be ensured first. This became a justification for censorship within the NSS, citing these ‘security concerns’ over what topics journalists are reporting on.
Yet the Juba Monitor soldiers on, both online and in print. In its wake, other local newspapers have also picked up speed. Nhial Bol Akeen, who runs The Citizen newspaper in Juba, has stood behind Taban, stating, “What they have done is unconstitutional. There is no provision in the constitution that states that censorship or confiscation of publications is allowed.”
And although there are no constitutional provisions that allow for censorship, right now there are zero provisions that protect from it either. For those in the position of advocating for journalistic integrity and free movement of the press, they find themselves straddling the divide, and in an incredibly precarious situation.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.