Press freedom hard to come by in South Sudan

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Publisher Dhieu Mathok shows Dengdit Ayok's column, criticizing President Salva Kiir for allowing his daughter to marry out of their tribe.. (Photo by Pierre Fink.)

It all began with the wedding of the daughter of South Sudan President Salva Kiir.

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Instead of marrying within the Dinka tribe, his daughter chose to marry 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. 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, Ayok was also arrested. Both men were held at NSS headquarters, a windowless building on the outskirts of Juba. After two weeks in detention, pressure from NGOs and diplomats led to their release. 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 said the arrests of the Destiny journalists were justified — though South Sudan’s new constitution, among the most progressive in Africa, prohibits holding anyone for more than 24 hours without a judge’s approval. It also guarantees freedom of the press. Atem Yaak Atem, Deputy Information Minister, said he had no comment on the arrest of the journalists.

Atem unofficially said, however, that he thought 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. Mathok said he’s worried his new country is not living up to its promises.

“Nobody likes anybody to be tortured, nobody likes any human right abuse in this young country because our Sudan, Sudan is born out of a struggle against all this kind of inhumanity, 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.