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South Sudan Orders Dutch Media Group, Newspaper to Close

Journalists say media rights have eroded since South Sudan erupted in conflict 20 months ago.
Journalists say media rights have eroded since South Sudan erupted in conflict 20 months ago.

One of South Sudan’s leading English-language dailies, the Citizen newspaper, has been ordered by the government to cease publication, editor-in-chief Nhial Bol said Tuesday.

"Yesterday at 4 p.m., a security officer I know at the National Security Service called me and told me that he has received orders from above that we should not come out today," Bol said.

Hours after the Citizen was shut down, the National Security Service ordered Dutch media group Free Voice to shutter its compound and halt operations.

South Sudan in Focus journalists work from the Free Voice compound.

Sawa Shabab

Free Voice Director of Programs Hildebrand Bijleveld said the media group is in full compliance with South Sudanese law and has done "nothing that should concern the goverment."

The media group produces the popular Sawa Shabab radio series, supports local media and works with children in South Sudan, Bijleveld said.

Bol said he was given no reason for the shutdown of the Citizen newspaper, but suspects the closure is related to the August 1 publication of a report about the compromise peace deal brokered by East African bloc IGAD.

"I went around yesterday talking to individual security officers and what I found out is that they are blaming us for having run some news item which is supporting the proposed agreement between the government and the rebels,” Bol said.

Peace deal protests

The compromise peace deal has sparked protests by government supporters who share government concern that the deal gives too much power to former vice president Riek Machar’s rebel group in Unity, Upper Nile and parts of Jonglei, the three states hardest hit by the 20-month conflict.

President Salva Kiir’s government has also rejected a clause in the deal that would allow for two armies during more than 10 months of a transition period, and another clause that calls for Juba to be demilitarized.

The warring sides are supposed to resume negotiations on the deal this week in Addis Ababa. The expanded international mediation team, known as IGAD Plus, has set an August 17 deadline for a final peace deal to be signed.

"I have been getting some indirect information for the last week that the government is telling us that we should not campaign for the peace agreement... because of the government’s position," Bol said.​

'Slap in the face'

The Association for Media Development in South Sudan (AMDISS) called the shutdown of the Citizen newspaper the latest government slap in the face of South Sudan’s media.

Reading from a statement, veteran journalist and AMDISS chair Alfred Taban called on "the authorities concerned to reconsider this move and allow the paper to be reopened as soon as possible."

The latest crackdown on the media comes more than two years after South Sudan agreed to be a pilot country for a United Nations initiative aimed at creating an environment in which journalists could work in safety and free from harassment.

It also comes about 10 months after President Kiir signed three media bills into law. The new laws were supposed to strengthen the rights of journalists and give them easier access to information. Many journalists and rights groups say the opposite has happened.

Wrong side of the government

The entire print run of the Juba Monitor newspaper, which Taban edits, has
been confiscated at least five times by security officials since South Sudan erupted in fighting on Dec. 15, 2013.

Each time, Taban was told the paper was seized because it included a story that was critical of President Kiir's government.

​The Citizen newspaper has also found itself on the wrong side of the National Security Service prior to Tuesday's order to close. Last year, security officials confiscated the newspaper's print-run after it published a story about a proposed federal system of government for the country. The government has said it is against federalism, at least for the time being.

Several journalists have been detained or questioned by security forces, and an Al Jazeera reporter was asked to leave South Sudan after a report he filed in the early days of the conflict allegedly sparked panic in the capital, Juba.

Some reporting for this story was done in Washington, D.C.