Tuesday, April 23, 2024

South Sudan: South Sudan's Govt Has 'Deeply Rooted Intolerance and Fear of Critical Views'

Harare — The South Sudanese government needs to act quickly to stop illegal media censorship, unacceptable restrictions on civic and political activities, and attacks on journalists and human rights defenders as it prepares for possible national elections in December 2024.

This is according to Entrenched Repression: the Systemic Curtailment of Democratic and Civic Space in South Sudan released by the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, which looks at the state of the country’s media and members of civil society, domestically and internationally. The oppressive way in which the State treats these essential spheres is a “major sign” of the future of responsible government and a democratic society, the report says.

“This report focuses on the whole situation of civic affairs, particularly for journalists, the media and rights defenders as well as civil society so that they can participate in public discussions around issues that are impacting on South Sudan. We believe that the way in which the journalists, media and rights defenders are treated by the government is important because their treatment is an indicator of the country’s democratic space. So, in the report, we talk about the detail around the severe and unlawful state censorship in South Sudan.” says Yasmin Sooka, chairperson of Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan.

The National Security Service (NSS) is described in the report as heavily interfering with civil society organizations’ operations and enforcing the State’s censorship regime in newsrooms. The report says its representatives are dispatched to newsrooms to examine and delete stories, while hacks and website obstructions frequently target independent media.

“Civil society too can’t hold any workshops, we can’t do any basic training unless they get permission from the authorities, which in this case is the national security officials. They even want to access to the guest list, who’s attending the workshop – before you do anything in South Sudan, you have to have them sign off on the workshop agenda and attendance as well. And if they’re not happy, they can choose not to sign off and that’s the end of your workshop. So, as part of the analysis that we’ve done, we note there is is a really deep-rooted intolerance and fear of critical views, which is something that the ruling party is not really comfortable with and the primary tool that they instrumentalize is the National Security Service (NSS).

“And we also talk about how patterns of behaviour of the NSS mirrors those in power in Khartoum. For example, South Sudanese use the term ghost houses to refer to facilities, notorious for enforced disappearances in Sudan,” Sooka says.

The country’s ruling party announced that South Sudan’s first elections will be held at the end of 2024, and Sooka says the country’s population is “really desperate for accountable government and want the opportunity to vote for the first time since independence”.

“But when we begin to explore the question of the foundations for the elections, these are not yet in place. And in fact, in terms of the revitalised peace agreement, which was signed in 2019, which committed South Sudan uniting the warring forces from all of these actors – this did not happen. The government is also not established the permanent Constitution, and neither have they established the transitional justice mechanism which was set out in the revitalised agreement. We are concerned that elections without these foundations in place risks really fueling further violence.”

The State’s resistance to democratization is explained in the Commission’s report as “the result of decades of factionalism in the military liberation movement and as a reflection of the ruling class’s profound sense of entitlement to seize the riches of independence. The nation has been destroyed by egregious human rights breaches that have been fueled by an intolerance for dissent and debate as well as a willingness to employ violence and coercion to achieve political goals”.

“Probably one of my most important points is the context in which we also point out is that when you look at liberation parties, that transition to political parties. With it comes the issues, the one is the use of liberation rhetoric to continue their hold on power. The second is this question of entitlement. That they are entitled to rule. I think the third is there’s no tolerance of dissent, and anybody that is critical of the government is seen as an enemy of the state,” she says.

Interviews were also done with journalists and human rights activists living in exile, who told the Commission that they face persistent harassment and death threats from South Sudan security services, and many of those interviewed spoke about being followed by the security services, “even on the streets of Kenya and Uganda”.

Another issue raised by the interviewees in the report is the threat of rendition (the practice of sending a suspect  covertly  to be  interrogated  in a country with little or no regards for human rights) to South Sudan, where those who are abducted “face torture or possible death”.

“For example, one of our detainees and witnesses spoke about being abducted at gunpoint in March last year. He was hooded, and he was taken to a ghost house for interrogation. He was also forced to drink a toxic substance . And he was then driven outside and he got into a gunfight with men. And when, in this gunfight, he managed to escape his captors and he fled the country to seek safety and medical treatment. And from the medical report we received it’s quite clear that he was given with some toxic substance to drink, which could have ended with him being killed.”

The Commission documented several cases in 2022 and 2023, which highlights continuing attacks against journalists and their “arbitrary” detentions. “And in the case of a female journalist who had just completed an interview with student activists, (the reporter) was bundled into a car on the streets of Juba by plainclothes security officers who took her to a local police station. They confiscated her phone and voice recorder, and she was accused of being a foreign spy,” Sooka says.