S Sudan: Media fights for free press

2011-03-17 13:55
Juba - Six weeks after Southern Sudan voted for independence in a widely praised referendum, security agents stormed the region's first printing press and arrested a top journalist, the latest assault on reporters fighting to create a free press here.

Newsman Nhial Bol said he was detained last month as he gave Norwegian diplomats a tour of his new press, which was partly paid for by Norway's embassy and took years to build.

He said he was criticising the government's repressive media politics at the very moment two dozen plainclothes agents armed with AK-47s arrived.

The men told the diplomats to leave. Bol said the agents put him in the truck and drove him around for two hours. He was eventually released without charge.

Bol later said he believes the harassment was retaliatory. He had recently argued in his newspaper column that citizens' freedoms were threatened by some of the myriad security forces that operate with impunity and without legal mandate.

Perhaps ironically, Bol's arrest - the latest of many in his career -underscored the arguments he made in his column in The Citizen, one of the few publications in the southern capital of Juba that regularly criticises the government.

Contentious topics

A year ago, in the run-up to Sudan's first multiparty elections in 24 years, southern reporters said in a statement that working as journalists was like "playing football without rules". Last year, police raided two radio stations that interviewed opposition candidates. A Mexican nun who managed a Catholic station was arrested.

Journalists in Juba have been pushing for years for the government to pass freedom of information laws and laws that protect journalists from intimidation. A day before Bol's arrest, the government pledged to pass the media laws before the south declares independence on July 09.

"The vice president did promise us that the laws would be enacted by July, and we hope that will be happen," said David De Dau, executive director of the Agency for Independent Media in Juba.

But De Dau said is not optimistic. He noted that Sudanese journalists are often discouraged from taking on contentious topics due to the fear of arrest and legal fees - particularly harsh threats, he said, considering that many journalists are not salaried and earn only $15 per story.

"The media situation here is not a free one," he said.

Tom Rhodes of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said the importance of a watchdog press in Southern Sudan could not be stressed enough, particularly since one political party dominates the government. He noted the region has never had an independent press.

"Accustomed to 22 years of civil war, politicians and citizens alike will need to understand that journalists with probing questions should not be considered spies or enemies of the state simply for carrying out their profession," he said.


Bol said the southern government has helped weaken the press. Asked to name a television station that reports independently on government issues, he scoffed.

"There are no independent TV stations," he said. "The government has taken all the best civil society leaders and appointed them as ministers. They have robbed civil society of its leadership and it is the same problem with the media community."

Only 15% of people in Southern Sudan read and write, making trained journalists hard to come by. Reporters willing to risk their lives and livelihoods to write stories exposing government misconduct are even rarer.

The rebel-movement-turned-political-party that heads the southern government is not united in its approach to state-building, governance, and human rights. Bol said not everyone in government wants to stifle a free press. But those who are opposed yield more power.

A reality of Sudan's north-south civil war is that some of the most brutal events occurred when southerners turned on one another. As independence approaches, internal divides are re-emerging. The government has yet to fully assert control over its vast territory.

Media laws

Some seasoned journalists say an inexperienced press corps could further stoke divisions. Reader comments on the news website SudanTribune.com sometimes feature hostile, tribal-based attacks and accusations.

"It's very fragile to the extent that what you say is not seen as the criticism of an institution but it is given an ethnic angle," said Atem Yaak Atem, editor of the weekly paper The Pioneer. "Journalists may abuse freedoms, and on occasions they already have."

Whether the government will pass the media laws before it declares independence in July remains to be seen, but southern officials say they support an open society with an independent press.

"We have been fighting for freedoms and basic human rights for the last so many years when we waged the struggle," Minister of Information Barnaba Marial Benjamin said. "We have been the champions for democratisation."

Read more on:    south sudan  |  media  |  east africa

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24


Miley Cyrus can’t get enough of her new puppy

Miley's new dog is too adorable.



13 guilty pets
Meet SA's top poacher-catcher
The unusual pets of Instagram
Bertie sets a new world record!

Book flights

Compare, Book, Fly

Traffic Alerts

The Leo moon adds an element of drama and entertainment. A significant person that you may consult or confide in may play an...read more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.