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Watchdog: South Sudan Government Spying on Journalists, Rights Defenders

FILE - Police officers sit on the back of pickup trucks as the prepare to patrol the streets of Juba, South Sudan, April 9, 2020.
FILE - Police officers sit on the back of pickup trucks as the prepare to patrol the streets of Juba, South Sudan, April 9, 2020.

A top South Sudan official denies his government spies on its citizens, dismissing a new Amnesty International report that says otherwise.

The report, titled, “These Walls Have Ears,” accuses South Sudan’s government of using electronic surveillance to monitor the conversations of journalists and human rights activists. It is the first report on digital surveillance conducted in the East Africa region.

Sarah Jackson, Amnesty’s deputy regional director for East Africa, says the results of their investigation were revealing.

“We find that the government of South Sudan through the National Security Service, known as the NSS, has been responsible for abusive surveillance in the country; that’s surveillance without appropriate legal safeguards. And this has had a chilling effect on human rights defenders, on journalists -- many of whom courageously continue their work despite these risks but have to be very careful about how they speak, to whom they speak and in what way, so we see a climate of fear, chilling effect, and of self-censorship,” Jackson said at a news conference Thursday.

Jackson said South Sudan’s government used technology obtained from an Israeli company to monitor private telephone conversations.

“We have been able to establish that between 2015 and 2017 the South Sudanese government had communications intercept technology that had been bought from an Israeli company called Verint used by Vivacell network, a telecommunications company operational in South Sudan at the time,” Jackson told VOA.

Michael Makuei, a government spokesman, denies that Juba conducts surveillance of its citizens, saying its equipment is used to track criminals.

“Those who commit offenses, they are usually pursued, and this is how they are tracked down,” Makuei told VOA.

He said, “These instruments are all over the world; there’s no country which has no such equipment. I don’t know what’s particular about South Sudan that the so-called human rights organizations decide to write and say we are curtailing freedom of expression.”

Amnesty International contacted Verint Systems and obtained documentation confirming the sale of surveillance technology to South Sudan.

The organization said a former employee of the Vivacell phone company told them the South Sudanese government requires all telecommunication companies operational in the country to pay Verint Systems Ltd., the Israeli subsidiary of U.S. Verint Systems Inc., for this equipment and charged an annual service fee.

Jackson said her team contacted phone companies in South Sudan, including MTN telecommunications company, where a former employee confirmed that in 2013 the National Security Service, or NSS, through an Israeli company, installed a “box” at their company. Box installations help the government, including the NSS, to gains direct access to data from service providers.

Jackson said tapped phone conversations have been presented in high-profile court cases in South Sudan and that former NSS detainees said they had conversations recounted to them during interrogations.

“It’s a problem because of the context in South Sudan and because of the nature of the abusive practices of the National Security Service, the NSS. The way in which the NSS has been responsible for illegal detention, for torture of detainees, interrogations, and the impact this has had on the right to privacy, the right to be free from torture, the right to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.” Jackson said.

Beny Gideon, head of South Sudan’s Human Rights Commission, declined to comment to VOA, saying he had not read the report.

Jackson said her team also repeatedly contacted the government to obtain its input on the report, but without success.

Makuei, who also serves as South Sudan’s minister of information, telecommunications and postal services, told VOA Amnesty never contacted him about the report.

The international human rights group is calling on the government to halt its digital surveillance until proper legal safeguards are put in place, which include ensuring such surveillance is only used for legitimate reasons, that it does not violate the right to privacy, and that it does not disproportionally target citizens and human rights defenders. It also calls on the government to reform the National Security Act of 2014 and bring it in line with international standards.

The measure appears to give the NSS broad powers on conducting surveillance activities.