Concern for violations against journalists in South Sudan ahead of the 2021 election

General Situation

The peace process in South Sudan still hangs in the balance and continues to face serious challenges. A public statement released by Amnesty International in September 2020 at the UN Human Rights Council showed that serious human rights violations in the nation have been ongoing and fuelled by impunity. South Sudan was also highlighted by civil society during the International Day of the Disappeared, observed globally on 30th August 2020, as calls were made for the government to investigate the fate of many people who disappeared during the civil war and have never been found. More positively however, on 15th October 2020, it was announced that the government and the Opposition Movement Alliance had agreed to a ceasefire and to pursue dialogue.

Even with this commitment, the situation in South Sudan remains fragile, with parts of the country still in a state of active conflict. In December 2020, at least seven people were killed and several more injured during intercommunal fighting in the Tonj North County of Warrap State. The fighting broke out between opposing groups of youths, who were heavily armed. In response to the violence, in January 2021 South Sudanese religious leaders and civil society activists held peace and reconciliation talks between communities. Those facilitating the talks urged all sides to resolve their differences considering the ongoing peace dialogue in Rome, as previously reported in the Monitor.

Association

Despite the ongoing fragile political transition and delays in fully implementing the 2018 Revitalised Peace Agreement, a presidential election is scheduled for 2021. A UN report released in November 2020 claimed that the opposition have been increasingly hindered and locked out of South Sudan’s decision-making process by President Salva Kiir. Additionally, a report released by the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan found that starvation was being used as a tactic of war against certain communities, with government forces intentionally depriving Fertit and Luo communities living under opposition control of critical resources, in 2017 and 2018.

On 5th October 2020, a UN convoy was attacked while travelling to deliver food items to Melut and Malakal in north South Sudan. During the attack, three World Food Programme (WFP) personnel were shot and left badly wounded, while another went missing and is presumed dead. As previously reported on the Monitor, South Sudan remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for aid workers.

Peaceful Assembly

From 24th to 26th August 2020, residents who live around Palouch and Melut oil fields in the Upper Nile region held demonstrations to bring attention to the environmental damage being caused by the oil operations. The protesters blocked the entrances of two oil companies and closed roads in the local area. Relatedly, earlier in February 2020, it was reported that the knock-on effects from the oil industry in South Sudan, particularly in Upper Nile, were causing birth defects, miscarriages and other major health issues. There were no reported arrests or injuries.

Separately, for several weeks throughout August and September 2020, teachers in Jonglei state protested against alleged mismanagement of incentives owed to them by the government through an EU-funded project and which had accrued for six months. The protesters partially shut down the Ministry of Education and burned tyres on roads in Bor town. The Director of secondary education in the Ministry of Education was arrested on 18th September after he reportedly fired a gun into the air next to protesters. The governor, Maker Thiong promised to disburse the incentives to the teachers.

The EU Teachers’ Incentives project was initiated to encourage teacher retention in schools and increase attendance of 30,000 teachers across the country, improve standards of teaching and encourage the teaching profession.

Expression

In August 2020, Agnès Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, highlighted the case of murdered journalist Christopher Allen, who died while working in South Sudan in 2017. In a news release, Callamard stated that the lack of proper investigation is indicative of a wider climate of hostility towards journalists and impunity when crimes are committed against them. The news release was followed by a renewed push from the UK’s International Ambassador for Human Rights, Rita French, who called on the government of South Sudan to end the culture of impunity.

Separately, on 2nd November 2020, which marked the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, One Free Press Coalition namedthe case of Dalia Marko as one of the most urgent unsolved cases regarding journalists. Marko was among five journalists killed when unidentified gunmen ambushed an official convoy in South Sudan in 2015. 

In December 2020, a report by Human Rights Watch detailed torture and killings carried out by South Sudan’s National Security Service (NSS) at a detention centre in their compound. The report details the testimony of one journalist about his nine-month torturous ordeal after he was arrested and detained for writing articles about opposition parties.