Life for journalists in embattled South Sudan is an increasingly dangerous proposition. A reporter was killed last week, just days after President Salva Kiir issued a thinly veiled threat at local journalists. It is a worrying sign for a country struggling to put an end to the nearly 2-year-old civil war.
“More and more independent voices are being silenced in South Sudan at this critical time in the country’s history, when the public desperately needs impartial information,” said Tom Rhodes, East Africa representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Peter Julius Moi, a reporter for the independent newspaper New Nation, was shot dead while leaving work on Aug. 19. Witnesses say an unknown assailant shot Moi in the head as he walked to his home in Juba. The slaying was widely condemned by activists in South Sudan and human rights groups.
The killing came just days after Kiir threatened journalists after being pushed on the issue of press freedom. Earlier in the year, the country’s information minister threatened to take journalists to court if necessary. Kiir’s remarks doubled down on the hostility show toward the media in South Sudan.
“[T]he freedom of press does not mean that you work against your country. And if anybody among them does not know this country has killed people, we will demonstrate it one day on them,” said Kiir on August 16, as reported by Radio Tamazuj.
The government attempted to walk back Kiir’s comments on Sunday. A spokesperson for the president said journalists printed an out-of-context quote. The office “categorically reject” the insinuation that the president made a threat to journalists. However, spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny followed that up by issuing yet another warning to journalists.
“[T]hey must not forget at the end of the day that South Sudan was their country. They should not betray the country which killed people during the liberation struggle,” he said, reported the Sudan Tribune. “The president of the republic didn’t have any intention to threat, or to effect killing of any life. If a journalist has failed to render journalistic duties in accordance with professional practice of Journalism, the best place for them is to face a libel either in tort or criminal law.”
Legal action and jailing are oft-used route by countries cracking down on the press. Neighboring Ethiopia uses loosely worded laws on terrorism to indefinitely imprison journalists writing opposition columns or reporting on stories that are not favorable to the government. The situation in South Sudan appears to be worsening.
There are another five recorded killings of journalists in South Sudan this year, according the Committee to Protect Journalists. All died during an attack by gunmen in Western Bahar al Ghazal state in January. The group was ambushed while traveling to interview victims of a recent attack in the town Sofo. Witnesses say the convoy was shot at and the travelers were attacked with machetes then set on fire. Some believe the attack was carried out by members of the Lord Resistance Army, but group responsible remains unknown.
The future of journalism in South Sudan is also an area of uncertainty. Attempts to strike a deal between Kiir and rebels failed last week. Kiir balked at a proposed power-sharing deal. As a result, the United States is seeking diplomatic channels to apply pressure and sanctions on South Sudan. Now, more than ever, a robust media is needed in the country to report on what is happening in the country and hold leaders accountable.
“It is still too early to tell whether there is a link but this tragedy will certainly cast a pall over independent reporting in the country as South Sudanese journalists are increasingly forced to self-censor as a means of survival,” Rhodes said.