JUBA — The UN High Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan has called on South Sudanese authorities to cease unlawful media censorship, oppressive restrictions on civic and political activities, and attacks on journalists and human rights defenders, ahead of the country's December 2024 elections.
Referring to the report released Thursday, titled "Entrenched Repression: the Systemic Curtailment of Democratic and Civic Space in South Sudan," commission member Barney Afako, highlighted the irony of individuals who once fought for South Sudan's independence, who he said are now intolerant of public scrutiny, critical discussions, and political opposition.
"As we have reported in the past, we have continued to find this year that the state is attacking journalists and activists," Afako said.
"Even ordinary citizens, particularly anybody who dares to discuss issues authorities may deem either sensitive or critical of their positions, face retributions including intimidation, harassment, violence, beatings, and sexual violence against women, arbitrary detention, and torture."
South Sudan’s Information Minister and Government Spokesperson, Michael Makuei, disputed the report, labeling it ill-intentioned.
“We don’t expect the so-called Human Rights Commission here in South Sudan to write positively about the government of South Sudan," Makuei told VOA.
"I don’t agree with it, and I have nothing to say other than that these are people who are doing their job to be paid. The media situation in South Sudan improved a long time ago, and I have repeatedly stated it. Have you ever heard of any journalist ever arrested after Michael Christopher?," Makue asked. "This is a clear message that we have really improved the media situation, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech.”
Carlos Castresana, another member of the Commission, raised concerns about allegations that the country’s National Security Service (NSS) imposed censorship in newsrooms and interferes with civil society group activities. Castresana went further to state that security officers are frequently deployed to newsrooms and printing centers, to review content and censor stories deemed critical of the government, including coverage of political and human rights issues.
He warned that these violations could undermine the credibility of next year’s elections.
“Before the elections can be granted in a free environment, we need to be sure that civil society is free, that South Sudanese society is really open, democratic, and transparent, and that the instructions are reliable," Castresana said.
Makuei acknowledged that that security officers are stationed at newspaper printing presses, but said their role is to prevent the publication of hate speech.
“When it is hate speech, it must be removed because we don’t want to prosecute anybody who publishes hate speech," explained Makuei. "This is why we remove them, otherwise, if they don’t want them removed, we act against them because hate speech is not a right. So instead of us taking anybody to court, we remove the speech, and that is all."
The Chairperson of the Association for Media Development in South Sudan (AMDISS) and manager of the Juba-based Eye Radio, Koang Pal Chang, welcomed the report on media censorship across the country.
“One of my journalists was harassed at the parliament for reporting the boycott when the opposition boycotted the passing of the budget because of the 123 issues," Chang told VOA. "I am not saying they happen every day, but that one incident that happened last month may be another incident that will happen next month."
The UN Human Rights Report highlighted South Sudan’s citizens’ desperation for an accountable government that can fulfill its human rights obligations. ‘’Rushing into elections without addressing these fundamental issues could exacerbate violence in the country,’’ the rights group warned.
The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, commonly known by its French acronym RSF, says at least nine journalists have been killed in the country since 2014. RSF says media outlets in South Sudan are routinely blocked from covering issues related to conflict and journalists often face harassment, arbitrary detention and intimidation.