Conflict & Justice

Testing Press Freedoms in South Sudan

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Publisher Dhieu Mathok showing Ayok's column. (Photo: Pierre Fink)

By Benno Muchler, Pierre Fink

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It all began with the wedding of the daughter of South Sudan's President Salva Kiir. Instead of marrying within the Dinka tribe, the daughter chose a businessman from Ethiopia — and her father allowed her to do it.

"An insult against his people," is how Dengdit Ayok described the marriage in his column in The Destiny newspaper.

That criticism didn't go down well with the new government of Africa's newest country. South Sudan became independent on July 9 of this year. It separated from Sudan, after more than 20 years of civil war.

In November, South Sudan's National Security Services summoned Destiny Editor-in-chief Ngor Garang to its offices in Juba. Destiny publisher Dhieu Mathok, who went with him, said they thought they were going in for a "constructive dialogue."

"But unfortunately after two hours in discussion, we were served with the letter of suspension of the newspaper," Mathok said. "And then the editor-in-chief was arrested."

Several days later, the columnist who criticized the president, Dengdit Ayok, was also arrested. Both men were held in the NSS headquarters, a windowless building on the outskirts of Juba.

After two weeks in detention, the Destiny journalists were released, following pressure from several NGOs and diplomats.

Dengdit Ayok said their treatment was harsh. "On the day they arrested me I was badly beaten."

He said that they were released without charges and forced to write a statement of apology. But Ayok said he doesn't regret what he wrote in his column and wants to continue his work as a journalist in South Sudan.

President Kiir has said that the arrests of the Destiny journalists were justified – even though South Sudan's news constitution, among the most progressive in Africa, prohibits holding anyone for more than 24 hours without a judge's approval. It also enshrines freedom of the press.

Atem Yaak Atem, Deputy Information Minister, said he had no official comment about whether the arrest of the journalists was right or wrong. But when we turned off the recorder, Yaak Atem later said he thought that President Kiir and the head of the NSS believed they were above the law.

Tom Rhodes, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the Destiny case is only the most blatant example of a worrisome trend in the new country.

"We have come across earlier cases of short term detentions of journalists in South Sudan and it's done completely arbitrarily without any address to the law, or any official charges brought forward," Rhodes said.

Though both journalists are free, the Destiny newspaper remains shut.

Publisher Dhieu Mathok said he's worried that his new country is not living up to its promise.

"Nobody like anybody to be tortured, nobody like any human right abuse in this young country because our Sudan, Sudan is born out of a struggle against all this kind of inhumane, so we don't want to see them in our new country."

Mathok said he's concerned that South Sudan may become just like the country it broke away from – Sudan.

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