By Ariel Bardi
Published June 27, 2013
Six months after the still-unsolved assassination of journalist Isaiah Abraham, South Sudan is in the throes of a national identity crisis. Since the fledgling state’s split from Sudan in July of 2005, Sudan’s capital Khartoum continues to cast a very long shadow on the new nation, silencing many of its journalists.
Some say that rebel group-cum-ruling party Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) has come to resemble its northern foes, particularly in its bellicose approach to the press. Harassments, detainments, attacks and, now, even killings of protesters and journalists are no longer throwbacks to an overthrown regime, but repeat occurrences within SPLA’s own administration.
SPLA’s spotty early history begs an uncomfortable question: is South Sudan defining itself against its former oppressors or letting itself be defined by them?
“I don’t see any difference, at this point, between South Sudan and the government in the north,” Duop Chak Wuol, editor-in-chief of South Sudan News Agency, says. “I believe that our leaders in the South copied what they fought against.”
Attacks on the press are widespread, averaging two a month. In February 2012, four plainsclothes security personnel raided the offices of The Citizen, South Sudan’s oldest daily, and beat the newspaper’s driver. In October of that same year, a piece criticizing the marriage of President Salva Kiir’s daughter to an Ethiopian led to the torture and 18 day detainment of The Destiny’s editor-in-chief, Peter Ngor.
Coming on the heels of Abraham’s murder, two reporters in Juba were arrested for failing to provide media coverage of a presidential speech, classified as â€œvery, very importantâ€ by an information minister. In the northwestern city of Wau, a mass arrest prevented reports of disporportionate government force during a protest. Then, in late May, security personnel stormed the television offices of South Sudan’s oldest daily, The Citizen, warning staff at gunpoint not to broadcast stories on Vice President Riek Machar.
While South Sudan is still colour-coded orange (‘noticeable problems’) to Sudan’s black (‘very serious situation’) on the Reporters Without Borders 2013 worldwide map, it fell a full 13 points in their 2013 index. At 124 out of 179, it sits between Tajikistan and Algeria. At 170, Sudan, a still more egregious offender, is flanked by Yemen and Cuba.
But for Wuol, the comparison has less to do with statistical analysis and more to do with the climate of fear and intimidation that developed during the rebel group’s vertiginous ascension to sovereign power, one which carried with it the painful echoes of past repressions. “People feel cheated,” Wuol now says, “and people are disgusted. There is a lot of backlash.”
Tom Rhodes, East Africa consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and co-founder of the Juba Post, put it similarly. “There is that kind of growing sense of resentment, like, ‘Well, great, now we’ve just swapped one authoritarian ruler for another one.”
Though isolated harassment was rampant in the months following South Sudan’s formal independence in July of 2011, it was Abraham’s murder that finally dashed the hopes of many South Sudanese, those who had taken pride in their country’s high-spirited secession, and in the democratic values of its leaders. For some, there is no turning back.
“The savage murderâ€¦woke up many from slumber of a self-fulfilling myth that South Sudan was morally superior to Sudan,”wrote Mading Ngor, outspoken host of the radio program, ‘Wake Up, Juba!’ in January of this year. He added, “The slaying, I believe, marked one of key moments when Juba began to lurch after Khartoum into totalitarianism.”
Before being gunned down on his doorstep in the early hours of December 5, 2012, Abraham, who was deeply critical of President Salva Kiir, had received several anonymous death threats. Though evidence has been in short supply, popular wisdom among journalists in South Sudan holds that their colleague’s murder was an inside job.
“That order came from the government, no question about it,” Duop Chak Wuol says. The government solicited the FBI’s aid in cracking the case, and though suspects were arrested within a month, no information has been released to the public. Many are unsatisfied with the authorities’ handling of the investigation. As Ngor Garang, Sudan Tribune journalist, asked rhetorically, “If the government is innocent, why has it taken such a long time to unearth the truth?”
James Nguen, contributor to South Sudan News Agency, put it more directly: “It is a gross and detestable cover-up.” Why would the government go to such lengths to curb dissent, falling back on strategies it once vociferously opposed during its resistance to Khartoum?
“They’re not used to not receiving blanket support,” explained Tom Rhodes from CJP. “During the civil war, the tiny, fledgling South Sudan press did their level best to counteract the propaganda of Khartoumâ€¦After all those years of having a pro-South Sudan media supporting them, I think the change in tone was a shock.”
Skye Wheeler, Sudan and South Sudan researcher at Human Rights Watch, agreed. “Suddenly they go from being the hero rebels who are fighting for the people’s cause, to being the authorities, who are not managing to do everything that the people were hoping they were going to do.”
Reporters Without Borders’ 2012 report on South Sudan claims that “the two Sudans wage their wars through their media as well as in the field.” South Sudan is quick to quash any story that might make for bad PR, while striving to project a unified front northward. “They still feel vulnerable to Sudan,” added Wheeler.
Torn between authoritarian practices and egalitarian principles, South Sudan remains in limbo. Can it get back on track? “The government needs to do some work,” Wheeler said. “But it’s not too late.”
For starters, it could green-light crucial legislation. The 2011 constitution grants freedom of press, however little has been done to legally uphold its guarantee. Since 2007, the SPLA has been been sitting on a set of media laws, which, if ratified, would ensure that journalists on hot-button assignments–from Dinka-Nuer ethnic strains to government corruption–be formally protected.
As Duop Chak Wuol told MediaGlobal, the SPLA “is not changing. They need to change.”
A MediaGlobal News article