UN report sheds light on plight of journalists in South Sudan

A new report from the UN Human Rights Council paints a harrowing picture of the plight of journalists in South Sudan. Released on October 5th, the report titled ‘Entrenched Repression: Systematic Curtailment of the Democratic and Civic Space in South Sudan’, unveils a reality marked by severe curtailment of democratic and civic freedoms.

According to the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, the National Security Service (NSS) is a central figure in the suppression of media freedom. The report reveals the institution’s implementation of a pervasive and unlawful censorship regime, which has stifled independent media and silenced civil society groups. It says the regime not only restricts access to information but also imposes a climate of fear and surveillance, casting a long, chilling shadow over the South Sudanese democratic landscape.

The Commission’s examination of the national legal framework and the media landscape in South Sudan has unearthed five distinct and deeply troubling patterns of media repression. These patterns include relentless attacks against journalists, a government intolerant of public scrutiny leading to a denial of access to information, an entrenched and overbearing censorship regime executed by NSS, arbitrary bureaucratic control wielded by the Media Authority, and the State’s deployment of cyber warfare tactics, including website-blocking, against independent media outlets.

Among the revelations in the report is the relentless assault on journalists and human rights defenders, both within South Sudan and beyond. This onslaught, often met with a staggering degree of impunity, has created an environment of profound insecurity for those brave enough to speak truth to power. The Commission says that since 2017, the State security establishment has relentlessly pursued a policy of harassment, resulting in a climate of fear, vulnerability and self-censorship among journalists.

Listed in the report are a number of high-profile cases of threats faced by journalists. These incidents, including arbitrary detentions and attempted assassinations, serve as vivid testimonials to the perils journalists face in the line of duty. Journalists such as Diing Magot, Garang John, and Woja Emmanuel have been subjected to trauma, compelling some to flee the country in search of safety.

Access to crucial official information is also a significant challenge for independent journalists. There are no centralised depositories or websites that publish important official data, such as on budgets and legislative processes, and authorities routinely deny access to information that should be publicly available, especially when it may expose corruption. Journalists reported that most ministries do not accept their invitations for interviews, and officials typically ignore requests for comment from independent media via phone or text-message. Journalists known for independent reporting are less likely to get access to official sources, and queries about sensitive issues or events can lead to threats of defamation or physical harm. Female journalists reported a consistent pattern of male State officials treating them with contempt and subjecting them to sexual harassment on account of their gender.

According to the Commission’s report, the situation has led many journalists to rely on government events and ad hoc press conferences as opportunities to access new information and seek comments. But questions are not always allowed, and some journalists are not selected to ask them. Frequently, journalists are subjected to intimidation and harassment while attending government events.

Journalists interviewed consistently referred to such cases as affecting their sense of safety and security, and said that this also affects their families. Many interviewees said the persistence of such attacks in the public view has bearing on their editorial considerations, influencing choices about what stories to cover and who to speak to, and for some, making them question staying working in the profession.

Read the full report of the Commission of Human Rights in South Sudan here.

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