Crackdown on civic activists and media workers on the rise
On 2nd August 2021, two women were appointed to senior leadership positions within the transitional National Legislature, including the first female Speaker of the Transitional National Legislative Assembly and a female Deputy Speaker of the Council of States. The UN Special Representative and head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), Nicholas Haysom, commended the development and stressed that the reconstitution of the state legislature must follow this.
During the 69th ordinary session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), the South Sudan Human Rights Defenders Network (SSHRDN) held a virtual event. SSHRDN urged the government to amend the National Security Service Act, which gives the National Security Service (NSS) unchecked authority to arrest human rights defenders (HRDs) and other independent actors.
The situation in South Sudan remains volatile, as parts of the country experience inter-communal conflict. Nine people died in Bor, Jonglei State, during inter-communal revenge attacks. On 19th November 2021, suspected criminals from Pibor Administrative Area ambushed two men on a motorbike travelling to Ayindi Payam. Consequently, Ayindi youth targeted and killed seven Pibor residents.
Officials from the Reconstituted Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (R-JMEC), the regional organ that monitors the peace deal implementation, are alarmed that delays in implementing the 2018 revitalised peace agreement (R-ARCSS) could result in a new conflict. The body is concerned that critical stages of implementing the R-ARCSS - including planning for the elections, writing a new constitution and merging security forces to form and train a national army - are pending.
On 2nd August 2021, the NSS arrested Kuel Aguer Kuel, a member of the pressure group People’s Coalition for Civil Action (PCCA), and attempted to hunt down the other two signatories of the PCCA declaration, Abraham Awolich and Rajab Mohandis. According to a statement by the PCCA, the NSS shut down the Sudd Institute, where Awolich is a managing director. In addition, they detained staff members and took them to the Blue House for questioning. The statement claimed that the staff would only be able to go home once Awolich surrendered. The arrests were made just days after the formation of PCCA. Weeks later, the Central Bank of South Sudan froze the accountsof the PCCA and organisations connected to it in a directive issued by the Director General at the bank on 6th October 2021.
The NSS and the police cautioned citizens against participating in planned protest against the government after the PCCA planned to hold nationwide protests on 30th August 2021, under a public campaign for change that was launched in July 2021. According to PCCA, the Revitalised Transitional Government of National Unity led by President Salva Kiir is doing very little to address the many challenges facing the people of South Sudan, hence the campaign for change and protests.
According to the police spokesperson, the planned protest would “create public disruptions” and would not be tolerated by the authorities. On 27th August 2021, there was a large police presence, and police officers had orders to arrest any protestors on the street.
On 27th August 2021, ahead of the planned protest, four activists were arrested in Wau and two others, together with a bishop, were arrested in Yei. The NSS accused them of “possessing information” attributed to the PCCA coalition.
Similarly, on 2nd September 2021, the NSS arrested two staff members of the Foundation for Democracy and Accountable Governance (FODAG), allegedly for being among the individuals who planned protests. Jame Kolok posted on his Facebook page that “staff members were innocent and should not be victimised.”
On 27th August 2021, NSS officials raided and closed Radio Jonglei. The NSS arrested three journalists, namely Matuor Mabior Anyang, Ayuen Garang Kur and Deng Gai Deng, and confiscated their phones. Officials suspected Radio Jonglei of “sympathising” with the PCCA. They accused the station of broadcasting a call for the planned 30th August protest. Prior to the raid, NSS officials summoned the station's director and ordered him to stop broadcasting political stories.
Relatedly, on 29th August 2021, on the eve of the planned protest the government shut down internet access. Disruptions persisted until 30th August 2021, when it became clear that the protest would not take place. According to Michael Makuei, the Minister of Information, Communication Technology and Postal Services, the internet shutdown was due to “technical problems.”
In several other incidents of harassment of journalists by the NSS:
NSS officials briefly detained Ajou Luol, a reporter working for Al Jazeera, on 30th August 2021. NSS agents arrested Luol for arguing with them during the presidential speech at the inauguration of Parliament. In addition, the agents threatened and confiscated the equipment of two other journalists, Maura Ajak and Yom Manas, for attempting to boycott the session in protest at Luol's detention.
On 21st October 2021, the NSS arrested Ayuel Chan, a news anchor at the state-owned South Sudan Broadcasting Corporation (SSBC) and held him at their detention centre in Juba, known as the “Blue House.” They released him the following day. Chan claimed his detention was related to a story he authored about Governor Aleu Ayieny Aleu allegedly harassing and intimidating members of the opposition party SPLM-IO in Warrap State.
Similarly, Ngor Deng, a reporter working with No 1 Citizen Daily, fled after allegedly receiving phone threats from the NSS. Deng believes the threats are related to a story he published on missing salaries for civil servants in Northern Bahr el Ghazal state on 3rd October 2021.
In other developments, on 5th October 2021, Paul Youane Bonju, the chairperson of the information committee in South Sudan's reconstituted National Legislative Assembly, warned journalists of the risk of being sued if they didn't follow the proper protocols for reporting MPs' financial activities. Bonju claimed that news outlets reporting on parliamentary expenditure without authorisation from the Speaker could have their licences revoked. The executive director of the Association for Media Development in South Sudan, Micheal Duku, condemned the restrictions. Media groups claimed that Bonju's comments are “an attempt to hide information from the public.”
Speaking to VOA’s South Sudan in Focus, Micheal Duku, executive director of the Association for Media Development in South Sudan said:
"The media is regulated by law and when it comes to information that is categorised, there is classified information and unclassified information… So long as this falls under unclassified information, the public has the right to know."