Risk assessment of reporting in South Sudan

Taylor W. Anderson

May 1, 2011

 “It’s better to be a thief here in Sudan than to be a journalist.” 

***

South Sudan’s ability to prosper as a country hinges on something it doesn’t have, access to critical information about its government.

It’s well known that countries prosper with free speech and the ability to share opinions about society. The countries with least censorship according to the Committee to Protect Journalists Press Freedom Index tend to rank high in the Human Development Indexes.

Sudan ranks No. 172 of 178 on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index of 2010, and countless attacks by the North and South Sudan governments on Sudanese and foreign press in the country seek to control the flow of free information to the people who can read or listen to it.

South Sudan security officials recently targeted the country’s biweekly newspaper, The Juba Press, as a threat to national security, despite the fact that the articles in question were beneficial to its citizens.

The CPJ reported last month that 50 percent of the circulation of South Sudan’s biggest paper, which is printed in the north capital of Khartoum, was confiscated by Government of South Sudan officials for an article about a suspected future attack on the southern capital by a powerful rebel general.

The CPJ said these moves, which are common by the Sudan government, would hurt the country when it is established in July 9, 2011.

“We are alarmed that the authorities in Juba are already resorting to censorship,” said Tom Rhodes, CPJ East Africa Consultant. “This does not bode well for press freedom in what will become Africa’s newest state. We urge the authorities to respect international norms of freedom of expression and allow the press to do its work without interference.”

The attacks on journalists by the government include detainment, interrogation, confiscation of equipment and torture, but it seems that censorship stops short of murder. CPJ reports only two deaths of journalists since 1992, the most recent being editor-in-chief of the Al-Wifaq newspaper, Mohammed Taha Mohammed Ahmed, who printed his skepticism of the Prophet Mohammed in an article. His severed head was found next to his body south of Khartoum.

“Both the CPA [Comprehensive Peace Agreement] and the 2005 interim constitution affirm the rights of free expression and press freedom,” according to the CPJ assessment on reporting in Sudan. “Despite these guarantees, authorities in Khartoum have constructed an oppressive censorship regime through a variety of mechanisms, including restrictive bureaucratic procedures, state surveillance and harassment, and draconian legal regulations.”

The government reportedly controls all local broadcast television and many of the radio stations, and has threatened the few foreign news broadcast companies that operate in the country.

Threats by the government aren’t limited to the north. The Southern Peoples’ Liberation Movement, which rules the semi-autonomous south, has attacked journalists for reporting on the corruption of its leaders and the attacks of rebel groups.

“It is better to be a thief here in Sudan than to be a journalist,” Faiz al-Silaik, acting editor of Ajras Al-Hurriya, told Reuters. “Authorities in the semi-autonomous South also restricted press freedom, particularly with regard to anti-SPLM criticism and coverage of inter-ethnic violence in the region.”

Emily Sloane, a humanitarian activist in South Sudan and Eastern Congo, said that many in the south believe the northern government is supplying southern rebels with arms and money to fuel a rebellion against Government of South Sudan before it declares independence from the north in July.

They believe, she said, that by doing this in secrecy President Omar al-Bashir can save face in the international eye for seemingly obeying the south’s January referendum vote for cession, while assuring future insecurity when Africa’s newest state is born.

But journalists’ attempts at covering the issue go much unheeded and are a near-impossibility because both governments’ control what’s printed in the press with an unwritten list of items that cannot be covered.

Western Reporters Struggle to Gain Ground in Sudan

Before foreign reporters can enter the country, they must first obtain work visas, which has proven a heavy task.

Rebecca Hamilton, a Washington Post reporter working in South Sudan said she waited for months before receiving a visa to enter Khartoum. But receiving the visa was only one step toward gaining access to her destinations, Darfur and South Sudan.

“You might think that being given a visa to Sudan means you can move inside Sudan – – you would be wrong. The visa gets you into Khartoum,” she wrote on her blog. “Once here, you need permission to get out. And the External Information Council is the place where foreign media must apply for a travel permit.”

She said she waited in the capital for months after being told by security services that there may or may not be a ban on foreign journalists entering Darfur in eastern Sudan.

Even public statements by officials announcing lifts on press censorship are often lies and attempts to escape international criticism, according to Reporters Without Borders.

“In August, Mohamed Atta, director of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), announced a decision to lift all censorship in Sudan. Journalists remained highly skeptical, noting that similar commitments in the past–including a near-identical statement in September 2009–had been quickly broken. Indeed, Atta warned that his agency reserved “its constitutional right” to reinstate “full or partial censorship whenever the necessity arises.”

One reporter, Geoffrey Nyarota, brings to light the question of Western reporters’ effectiveness in Africa because they speak to sources like President al-Bashir or his foreign minister, or easily accessible sources like NGOs or U.N. agencies in the region. Nyarota said Sudanese reporters have an advantage because they tend to go directly to the people who are affected by the violence for sources for stories, and they don’t need to deal with the troubles of entering the country.

The future and use of the Internet

Though much of the infrastructure needed for good access to the Internet is lacking in the South, the youth may be picking up on the use of sites like Facebook to harness its communication power.

Opposition groups in Egypt used social-networking sites earlier this year to assemble protests that eventually toppled the existing government, and its power and effectiveness has grown into a force against oppressive governments.

There is a faint glimmer of hope in Sudan that its youth will begin to harness the small window that is available today.

“While the outlook for Sudan’s media appeared grim with the approaching                referendum–which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to in                  August as “a ticking time bomb”–some young Sudanese activists were                        harnessing the power of the Internet and social networking sites to press                  for nonviolent change. Members of the nascent pro-democracy movement              Girifna (Arabic for “We are fed up”) aired information on citizens’ rights                    via Facebook, YouTube, and an online radio station.” – Quote from the CPJ

Today, there are 422 members of a Facebook group called Sudan Journalists Network.

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