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 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."