Journalists in South Sudan continue to endure hard times in the execution of their duties as the government sustains its onslaught on the freedom of the press and expression.
Their woes can be traced back to the start of the conflict in 2013.
A talk with journalists reveals moving tales of persecution and repression in the form of death threats, kidnapping, harassment, arbitrary arrests, detention and censorship.
Mr Denis Dumo, based in Juba, testified that the current cut back on media freedom in South Sudan was connected to the political turmoil in the oil-exporting country.
“Despite the presence of media laws to guarantee press freedom in South Sudan, we journalists still find ourselves in danger as a result of the information we produce and publish for the public consumption,” Mr Dumo narrated.
Between July and October this year alone, South Sudan lost four journalists, adding to the total 12 journalists who lost their lives in line of duty since independent in 2011.
Mr Dumo, however, said most perpetrators of violence against media professionals went unpunished, hence the increasing fear within the media landscape, forcing many to abandon the profession and others to flee into exile.
“It is not a surprise that many of us who are surviving these threats in Juba have to exercise self-censorship, if we want to remain alive,” he said.
“The freedom of the press means access to information and the platform where journalists can report freely. But it is very unfortunate things are not the way we expect,” he said.
He regretted that the situation appeared impossible to change unless peace and political stability returned to South Sudan.
Although the South Sudan Transitional Constitution charged the government to provide protection to all citizens, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, race and profession, that has not been the case for the journalists who ply their trade at home.
The Government Spokesman and Information Minister, Mr Michael Makuei, recently cautioned media professionals against 'negative' reporting on the current crisis in the country.
Given the circumstances, Mr Dumo observes, it would be least surprising if journalists self-censored to stay alive.
“My advice to my fellow colleagues is that they should think twice before covering controversial stories because we (journalists) in South Sudan are in an environment in which anyone who has a gun can take the law into their own hands,” he said.
Mr Juma Peter Maya, of the Dawn daily, lamented the high level government censorship on print media in Juba. He said security personnel were deployed to the media houses to remove any information deemed to be critical of current political environment.
Mr Maya acknowledged that the young media in South Sudan faced its own challenges, but pointed out that the Judiciary and Security sectors needed to support the later to grow. He said the two institutions were critical, not only in the development of the media, but the entire citizenry.
“In all the killings of journalists since 2012 to date, nobody has been apprehended and tried in the court of law. That is why reforms in Judiciary and Security sectors are crucial now,” he said.
“We have the legal framework to handle journalists’ related cases, but there was little to write home about it. The situation continues to get worse,” he said.
Mr Maya said only the independence of the Judiciary and Security sectors could ensure justice for all and the protection of the freedom of expression.
The red line
“If the Judiciary is not independent, then justice must be in limbo,” he said.
A press freedom advocate working for the Association for Media Development in South Sudan (AMDISS), Ms Irene Aya, said media in South Sudan has been accused of crossing the red line and becoming part of the dangerous politics in the country.
“You know, there were orders by the government to the media when the conflict started in 2013, prohibiting the latter from talking to the rebels yet the media was abiding by the ethics of balancing their stories.
“It is at that point that when the media tries to balance stories that they are accused of engaging in negative politics,” she said.
Press institutions such as AMDISS, the Union Journalists of South Sudan and the National Editors Forum, have all expressed concerns over the alarming level of impunity for crimes against the media fraternity. They have all called on the authorities to immediately stop the practice and prosecute the perpetrators.
Five out of seven media institutions shutdown in South Sudan still remain closed and four journalists have been kidnapped and tortured, while many others have been forced into hiding, some outside the country this year alone.
According to the World Press Freedom Index; the murders of journalists in the world’s newest country have been compounded by arbitrary arrests, torture and threatening speeches by the president.
The 2016 Index ranked South Sudan 140 out of 180 countries surveyed