Journalists in both Sudan and South Sudan say threats, intimidation and arbitrary arrests are part of everyday life, limiting their ability to inform the public.
South Sudan ranks 128th and Sudan 151st out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ annual list world press freedom index, released on Tuesday to coincide with the United Nations’ annual recognition of World Press Freedom Day. The larger the number, the worse the atmosphere for the news media.
Irene Aya of the Media Development Association in South Sudan says government censorship is widespread in her country.
“Last month, we registered four articles removed from newspapers,” she said.
Between January and March alone, security personnel removed dozens of articles from the Juba Monitor, Anna Namiriano, editor-in-chief of an English-language daily in Focus, told South Sudan. “They removed the stories and we left the space blank. They say why are we not listening to them, so on March 17 they suspended the newspaper.”
In February, a handful of journalists were detained for covering a press conference by opposition MPs in Parliament. A Juba Monitor The newspaper article about the incident was removed from the printing plant by security agents.
“We don’t have freedom of the press in the country,” Namriano said. “The solution is to do our bit as media houses. We have a code of conduct, we have a media law to guide us, and deleting stories is really bad.”
South Sudan’s Information Minister Michael Makui insisted that press freedom is alive and well in his country.
“South Sudan is the only place where journalists are free, where they enjoy complete freedom according to the law. I say, ‘according to the law,’ because nothing in this world is perfect,” Makui told Focus South Told Sudan.
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights denies that claim. In a report released last October, it said the government was harassing activists, journalists and their families, limiting their activities and targeting their work and finances. According to the commission, South Sudan is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist.
“South Sudan has much work to do to establish and strengthen the institutions critical to a well-functioning democratic state,” David Renz, in charge of the US Embassy in South Sudan, said in a statement on Tuesday. The United States is seriously concerned about the state of press freedom in South Sudan.
“We have seen some local radio stations shut down in very minor cases,” Renz said. “And we also know that journalists on radio and television and even social media are self-censored” and wary of the actions of local and national governments “to punish journalists who say such things.” What the government will like is what they don’t say.
Further complications from the coup
In Sudan, journalists in the capital city Khartoum say harassment and threats have increased since the military takeover on October 25.
Shogi Abdulazim, an investigative journalist in Sudan, said he had received death threats in November and was warned not to speak to international media.
“I was hosting live on Al Jazeera and as I left their office, eight armed security personnel followed me in a pickup. They surrounded my car,” Abdulazira said. He told South Sudan in Focus that he was blindfolded and wandered around “for more than two hours” and was ordered “not to criticize the military again”.
Abdulazim said covering up the pro-democracy protests in Sudan is a dangerous attempt.
Abdulazim said “many newspapers, TV channels and radio stations have been instructed not to conduct or conduct interviews with certain designated individuals” who criticize military leaders. “There are intelligence officers who have been assigned to oversee the situation,” he said.
Ayesha Asmani, executive member of the Independent Sudanese Media Network, told South Sudan in Focus that they have recorded more than 10 attacks on journalists and media houses since the coup last year.
“They are targeting freedom of expression with excessive force,” Asmani said. “Most of our journalists are now fearful and their lives are in danger. Most of them remain anonymous because of the threat of the situation.”
According to local news media, on December 30, Sudanese security forces fired tear gas at the offices of three television stations – al-Arabiya, al-Hadath and al-Shark – attacking staff and destroying broadcast equipment. On the same day, security forces detained al-Shark reporters Maha al-Talb and Sally Othman for hours before releasing them.
On 16 January, Sudanese authorities revoked Al Jazeera Live’s broadcast license and closed its office in Khartoum. A letter from the Ministry of Information to the director of Al Jazeera television in Sudan blamed the “unprofessional approach” and the closure of media content that “harmed the country’s higher interests and national security.” The Doha-based network condemned the shutdown.
In February, Sudanese authorities arrested a group of BBC journalists in Khartoum and interrogated them for several hours before releasing them.
The VOA repeatedly called the government of Sudan for comment, but those calls – Brigadier General Attahir Abu Haja, press adviser to military leader Abdul Fattah al-Burhan – went unanswered.
Michael Atitt reported from Khartoum, Sudan; Deng Ghai Deng and Manyang David Meyer reported from Juba, South Sudan.