South Sudan Wednesday celebrated the World Press Freedom Day despite the increasing harassment and killing of journalists.
The celebrations were held at the Juba Grand Hotel in the capital.
The Union of Journalists of South Sudan (UJOSS) says the safety of journalists in the war-torn country was of serious concern.
“Journalists are not safe because the country is not safe. There is intimidation, there is harassment and there are arbitrary arrests of journalists,” UJOSS Secretary-General Edward Ladu Terso, lamented.
Mr Terso revealed that about 11 journalists have so far lost their lives in relation to their profession.
“This is serious. This means that freedom of expression is not understood. Freedom of the press is not understood,” he added.
Mr Terso challenged the Juba administration to safeguard the lives of the media workers and ensure a safe environment for press freedom.
The Association for Media Development in South Sudan (AMDISS) development officer, Ms Irene Aya, called on the authorities to guarantee freedom of expression.
“The situation is very fragile and we need our government to respect and provide free and safe environment for our journalists,” she noted.
AMDISS deputy chairperson Mary Ajith said press freedom and freedom of expression were fundamental rights of all South Sudanese as enshrined in the Transitional Constitution.
She reiterated the calls for the released of all jailed journalists and the reopening of media houses shut down by the authorities over critical reporting.
Ms Ajith also slammed the deployment of state agents at printing presses to censor stories perceived to be against the interest of the government.
“From January to April, at least 20 critical stories were removed by the National Security deployed to printing presses,” she said.
Unesco says press freedom environment in South Sudan required dialogue between the media, different state actors and other stakeholders.
The Unesco representative to South Sudan, Mr Shadar Umar Alam, said freedom of the press, if granted, would play a critical role in the national dialogue in South Sudan.
The European Union envoy and head of delegation to South Sudan, Mr Stefano De Leo, said supporting independent journalism was essential for development in South Sudan.
“The right to freedom of expression and freedom of media is a key component for democracy,” he said.
The government representative, Mr Justine Aler De Mayen, who is the Undersecretary at the Information ministry, acknowledged the essential role of a free press, but said it must be practised with responsibility.
“We must be careful as we enjoy our freedom. Some cases that landed journalists in South Sudan in jails are not connected with their profession,” he said.
He also denied that the government was censoring independent media, pointing out that the articles which were deleted by the state agents at the printing press in Juba contained hate speech stories.
He warned media houses operating in government controlled-areas not to report or interview rebels.