South Sudan: The War that Journalists Cannot Cover

Apr 23, 2018 - Photograph: Justin Lynch/AFP/Getty Images. South Sudan UN AFP
Written by: 
By Geoffrey Kyeyune Magoba
Journalists in South Sudan have to choose between being bold and getting harmed or keeping quiet and living to see another day.

Nearly five years of a deadly war has claimed thousands of lives, displaced up to four million people and eroded basic freedoms, including freedoms of speech and of the press.

A 2018 report by the world rights body, Human Rights Watch, documents incidents of rights violations including attacks on civilians, sexual violence, arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances, summary executions in cold blood and restrictions on freedoms of expression among others.

According to the report, close to two million people have been internally displaced, another two million living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries. Uganda alone is home to over one million South Sudan refugees.  

Under normal circumstances journalists would be highlighting these issues, but this is not the case in the war-torn South Sudan where reporters continue to be targeted for doing their work and media houses shut down for reporting the war as well as government excesses.

Since the war broke out in December 2013, numerous media houses have been shut down—some repeatedly—as government perceives them to be critical. Some of those closed down in the last two years include The Citizen, Al-Rai, Free Voice, Al Jazeera and the Nation Mirror, according African Arguments an online newsletter.

Since 2012, at least nine journalists have been killed, but the government has taken no deliberate action to find the killers. President Kiir himself has been on record warning that journalists would be killed for painting the government in bad light. Three days after this warning in August 2015, another journalist was gunned down.

Some journalists have—after being arrested, detained and tortured—have opted to run away and live in exile. Opoka P’Arop Otto was a managing editor of the Juba Monitor until 2016 when he ran into exile. In 2016, he was quoted in The Guardian

saying journalists continued to face harsh conditions with unnecessary arrests and killings forcing many to abandon their work.

Now living in The Netherlands, Opoka narrated his own narrow survival: “I fled the country after frequent arrests and beating because of the work I was doing. My colleagues have lost lives due to mistreatment from government.”

Our reporter contacted Opoka to get his opinion on the current state of media freedom in South Sudan. “How did you get to know me,” he asked before promising: “I will give you the information you need. Share the details.” At the time of publishing this story, he had not come back to us.

Dominic Kango, a journalist and researcher, says the politics of the country frame the environment within which the media operates. In this case, it is war that dictates how the government treats the media.

“The worsening media environment is framed by the political and other social environment. “Civil wars are responsible for the hostile conditions of media industry in South Sudan,” said Kango.

 South Sudan is now ranked 144th in the World Press Freedom Index.

At the South Sudan embassy in Kampala, officials declined to comment on the issue, with one insisting that he be allowed to speak off the record.

“Kindly hide my identity for personal safety…,” the official said. He noted that, because of the fragile situation in the country, the media is expected to play public relations and propaganda roles for the government. “Whoever seeks for the truth, is silenced.”

For the first time in two years, President Kiir and his former deputy, Dr Riek Machar, met and shook hands in Ethiopia this week as regional leaders push for an end to the fighting. There are signals however, that the parties are still far from agreeing to end brutal war. Media reports indicate that the sticky issue is whether Dr Machar will be allowed to return to South Sudan. One other issue the press back home are not at liberty to discuss.