Freedom of Expression in South Sudan: Does it exists?

By Abu Deng

“You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.” (US President Ronald Reagan, from "The Speech" – October 27, 1964)

Dear Mr. President:

August 18, 2014 (SSNA) — I have followed recent events where the actions of the security forces of South Sudan have done things which are contradictory to the stated public stance of the Republic of South Sudan (RSS), particularly given the recent comments by your Spokesman, Mr. Ateny Wek Ateny, a journalist himself.

Last Thursday Mr. Ateny gave an interview to Bakhita Radio, stating anyone is allowed to express themselves, and there is no intimidation in the country, according to media reports (Sudan Tribune, see article

So one finds it quite ironic that the radio station where your journalist-spokesman, Mr. Ateny was interviewed last Thursday was stormed then closed down on Saturday, 16 August at around 9 a.m. and four of its journalists arrested. See,

Even more ironic is the fact that the Presidential spokesman has been using Bakhita Radio as a platform to decimate the views of the Presidency, like when he spoke on 2 July regarding Equatorian’s governors assassination rumors; or 23 June on getting Equatorians to not discuss federalism, see – the spokesman has been mentioned or interviewed by Bakhita Radio more than 10 times since January, yet their reporters are mistreated, arrested.

Does the leadership not see how bad this is for the nation – preaching openness and freedom of expression, then slamming down the hammer on a station that is trying to provide a balanced perspective for listeners. Unfortunately this is one area of international norms no one can argue with that needs serious work in the country, which still does not have a formal media law – which has been expected or rather promised since 2007. Should not RSS citizens hears both sides of a story? Most of the world would think so, but this recent action feels like the old Africa, that of Macias Nguema and Siad Barre.

Members of the Troika are noticing, and reporting these sad actions of the national security service and other forces, the UK government country report (31 March 2014) on South Sudan had this to say:

"Restrictions on freedom of expression have continued throughout the conflict. Harassment, intimidation and detention of journalists and human rights defenders have increased in frequency. The Union of Journalists of South Sudan reports that numerous such incidents took place in the first two months of the year. Journalists report increasing constraints on their independence, including seizure of publications and restrictions on coverage of opposition leaders. In March, Information Minister Michael Makeui stated that journalists who interviewed opposition figures risked possible arrest or expulsion from the country. Self-censorship by journalists and media houses is now understood to be widespread."

Mr. President: Why, how, can you allow the case of Journalist Abraham Agoth to occur, why must he hide for his life in Northern Bahr El Ghazal? See CPJ article, – Is this one of your decreed governors hunting Mr. Agoth – please tell him to stop or "un-decree" him since your have that constitutional right if he does not behave as a responsible public official immersed in democratic standards.

Mr. Agoth has to hide because RSS security forces have spoken clearly through their past actions against Isaiah Abraham, Jok Madut Jok, Deng Athuai and others. Our brave son has been trying to act in a modern competent and professional way with his news coverage in a hostile environment, proven by the news agency who use his journalistic services like Gurtong and Voice of America.

Mr. President, the principle of freedom of expression must be a pillar of South Sudan, otherwise, how can we sit at the Global table asking for aid, development and investment funds…invites. The South’s friends are concerned. The Freedom House 2014 report on political rights and civil liberties has us at 6, equal with Afganistan, but not yet as bad as as Eritrea and Sudan.

Proper nation-building requires an open-minded environment for a progressive and prosperous nation. News reporting is a vital piece of that building process, and the Catholic Radio Network’s Bakhita Radio is a professional organisation that provides objective news coverage. Its reporters like others around the world follow a creed. Let me quote two sentences from that Journalist Creed of 1914:

I believe that a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.

I believe that suppression of the news, for any consideration other than the welfare of society, is indefensible.

Most Journalists live by this code or creed, some have even died by it. So please respect these pen and paper warriors  – and ensure all of the RSS apparatus does too.

Mr. President you were treated with great respect in my country during the recent African Leaders Summit, were you not, even though I know many US government officials, NGOs and private individuals disagree with what you have done and said.

Yet, America invited you and rolled out the red carpet treatment for you. Our leaders even took photos with you: Obamas, Menendez, Royce. Haven’t you wondered about that how could you be treated with such respect there when many people there believe that you are part of the problem in South Sudan?

Mr. President it is because of the hallmarks of democracy, characteristics of which we Americans hold dearly, such as: freedom of expression, of opinion. We believe in allowing dissenting voices in society, in a governmental system – for it makes it better, more accountable, as our founding fathers debated and concluded over 200 years earlier. For it is believed in the end, a Leader will take a step toward compromise though he or she may disagrees with their opponent’s views.

In such a society a worker does not have to agree with a superior all the time, sometimes the worker may have a better idea or approach that can advance that organisation. This is the essence of democracy! Richness of opinion is a good thing.

A final note, it was believed by many Mr. President that when you hired government critic Mr. Ateny Wek Ateny, a better relationship between the government and media would occur, but alas it has not, even the British Foreign office has taken notice of this failure in its April 2014 South Sudan – Country of concern report:

"Outspoken commentator Ateny Wek Ateny was appointed as presidential spokesperson in November, prompting speculation that this represented a new openness in the government’s relationship with the media. However, this was not borne out in the government’s subsequent treatment of the media."

It seems whose like Mr. Ateny who used to speak out are silenced by the system, and those who report on the system are hunted and silenced or disappear. Well, correct the path Mr. President, before it’s too late – the whole world wants to be proud of South Sudan, to help it grow and prosper. Protect our journalists!

P.S. Oh, on the war, please take a giant step toward Peace. As Head of State, the burden of the nation’s welfare is in your hand, and will be part of your legacy, be it good or bad. You alone – through decree or political will – can end this current war – if you like! Everyday you delay, dozens of Junubin children of future generations are dying.

Abu Deng is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow in Public Policy and International Affairs, who lives in Oslo, Norway.

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