- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 26, 2011

JUBA, South Sudan — Harassment, arbitrary detention and beatings come with the turf for journalists in South Sudan who dare to question the government’s actions, expose corruption or report the opposition’s point of view.

An atmosphere of intimidation has some reporters worried that Africa’s newest nation is replicating the intolerance for a free press that is pervasive in Sudan, the nation South Sudan officially separated from on July 9.

Nhial Bol, the editor of the Citizen newspaper, regularly faces death threats. He was arrested three times in the past four years, during a transition period under an interim government that included many of the same officials with the new administration.

He said it was no coincidence that each arrest followed a Citizen report on corruption in the government. In February, police raided the newspaper’s office in the capital, Juba, and ordered its journalists not to write about misconduct by the South Sudan armed forces.

Mr. Bol was part of the panel that helped draft media-freedom legislation for South Sudan. The legislation has yet to become law.

“Nhial Bol has been threatened with death, and he is a member of the committee that is forming the law. That’s the irony,” said Edmund Yakani, program coordinator at the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization in Juba.

“He is on a blacklist because they feel this is a guy campaigning for a free press,” he added.

Sudan suffered two decades of north-south civil war that left more than 2 million dead and ended with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) spent much of this time in the bush fighting troops loyal to the north. Now the SPLM is the ruling party across the south.

Mr. Bol attributes the government’s intolerance to criticism to the time officials spent in a guerrilla war.

“There is no system of accountability in the bush, so when you seek accountability from the government, it sounds very strange to them,” he said.

Ambroise Pierre, the Paris-based head of the Africa desk at Reporters Without Borders, said the detention and harassment of journalists in the south is a cultural trait that has carried over from the north.

“I don’t think this will change overnight,” he said in a phone interview.

Journalists in the south say the government has zero tolerance for publications that carry the opinions of the opposition.

Earlier this month, the Juba Post reported that military intelligence agents detained and beat opposition leader Onyoti Nyikwech Adigo.

Mr. Adigo was roughed up after members of his party displayed posters in Juba, congratulating South Sudan on its independence and urging human rights and political freedoms. Mr. Adigo lost a tooth in the beating.

“The government told me not to run that kind of story. If we want to run anything, we have to call them first,” Juba Post editor Michael Koma said in an interview.

“We were just telling the public what was happening in their country on the eve of their independence,” he added.

In April, police seized thousands of copies of the Juba Post, which carried a story quoting a spokesman for dissident forces as saying they were planning to attack Juba on the July 9 independence day.

The Information Ministry summoned Mr. Koma and told him not to write about the rebels.

“We face daily harassment from various security and intelligence agencies, which are trying to force us into censorship and are intolerant to others’ views. The picture is very bleak,” he said.

In May, Mohammed Arkou Adiebou Ali, a journalist with Sudan Radio Service was arrested in Wau in Western Bahr el Ghazal state and accused of taking photographs without government permission.

Sources told Reporters Without Borders that Mr. Ali was tortured during three weeks in detention. He was released without charges.

Mr. Bol says the government is not interested in the freedom of the press.

“In the absence of laws, we are living at the mercy of the government,” he said.

South Sudan’s minister for information, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, said in an interview that the media-freedom bill will be enacted by the end of the year.

The bill was drafted with input from the government, journalists and civil-society organizations, he said.

“It has been done to the satisfaction of all the stakeholders, and went to the council of ministers that was equally satisfied with it, and now it is in parliament, which will debate it, and sooner or later they will enact it into law, which will be signed by the president,” he added.

Mr. Benjamin said the law will guarantee the freedom of the press so that all citizens are protected within the legal framework of the constitution. There will be no restrictions on what journalists can report.

However, Mr. Bol and Mr. Koma, who were both involved in drafting the legislation, say the language of the bill presented to parliament is not what was discussed by the council of ministers and approved by their panel.

Mr. Bol started the Citizen newspaper in Khartoum.

“At least in the north, they have an institutionalized dictatorship. In the south, there is anarchy,” he said.

Most reporters have been warned not to work at the Citizen, and those who ignore these warnings face intimidation and threats to their lives.

Sudan ranks 172 on a list of 178 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ ranking of press freedoms.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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