Freedom of the Press

Press freedom under threat
Press freedom under threat

South Sudan has been slipping down the rankings in terms of media freedom. Find out why you need to care about the government’s media crackdown.

“A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.” – Nelson Mandela

Why is a free press important?

I suppose to answer to the question – Why is a free press important? – you need to ask yourself another question – Do you believe that democracy is the better type of government for our country?

You simply can’t have a democratic country without a free press. In a democracy, the citizen is the boss and government is his/her agent. Government always looks to citizens to make big decisions for it – either through the ballot box or through direct involvement in policy making. If a government loses the confidence of its citizens, it also loses its authority to govern. An important part of a functioning democracy is that citizens are able to make informed choices and decisions. You need to be able to get information from a variety of sources, freely debate that information, make a decision and communicate your decision to government. You can’t do that without a free and investigative press that is able to independently get its hands on information and make that information available to large sections of the citizenry so as to start or help add details to a national conversation.

In a recent talk, Fred Swaniker, the Ghanaian entrepreneur and leadership development expert argued that in Africa, due to weak institutions, leaders really matter. In a country with strong institutions, a good leader can usually achieve little and a bad leader can damage little. But in a country with weak institutions, a good leader can create miracles whilst a bad leader can all too easily ruin the nation. In countries like ours more than any other, we desperately need to ensure that our leaders understand that they are accountable to the citizenry. We need to know what they are doing, why they are doing it and what they could or perhaps should be doing differently. It is only a free press that will help us know these things.

Why does the government want to muzzle the press?

Some in authority in South Sudan clearly don’t have much confidence in democracy. For them, stability is much more important. It’s an incredibly seductive idea, especially if you are in government. The country is awash with weapons. Insecurity is everywhere. Politics is fractious and polarised. Our institutions are underdeveloped and weak. Corruption has worked its way into every nook and cranny of our polity. In such a climate, they conclude, what we need is a return to strong government able to take tough decisions. There is no room for the constant criticism of a free press which only serves to undermine government authority. This opinion has demonstrably won out in South Sudan. Elements in government have bought into the old and discredited notion that “knowledge is the parent of sedition and insurrection and that in proportion, as the public mind is illuminated, the principles of anarchy are disseminated.”

Are there any historical reasons for this approach?

The free media is largely viewed by authorities as being in opposition to the government. It’s not a stretch to conclude that the hostile attitude to an unshackled media, no longer subservient but willing to challenge senior authorities, is a direct consequence of the SPLM/A leadership’s failure to adjust to the post conflict social and political environment.

Atem Yaak Atem served in Radio SPLA during the second war of liberation. In an article published on Gurtong, he wrote:

“All of us as a team running the radio station had little leverage over what to broadcast or not to broadcast when the issue concerned senior leadership or their decisions. Our job was mainly to do as told and to receive instructions and comply with them and no questions asked.”

Although published at a time of terrible internecine conflict (and so likely riddled with hyperbole), Dr Nyaba’s expose on the Politics of Liberation includes a section which also warrants recounting:

“In the course of their training, the recruits would spend 8 to 10 hours a day, not receiving political education, but on songs of praise to the leaders of the Movement. In fact, instead of praising the revolution or liberation struggle, the leaders idolised and mystified the leaders.”

What I read from the above accounts, is that the leadership of the liberation struggle, who are the same leadership in government today, were not well acquainted with scrutiny, criticism or ridicule whilst in the bush. Being used to acting with impunity, their first instinct, post-independence, has been to suppress a free press. With the advent of the ongoing civil war, the excuse became available to completely break the back of the institution all together.

What is happening to the press right now?

Noam Chomsky, a social justice activist once noted that a “principle familiar to propagandists is that the doctrine to be instilled in the target audience should not be articulated: that would only expose them to reflection, inquiry, and, very likely, ridicule. The proper procedure is to drill them home by constantly presupposing them, so that they become the very condition for discourse.”

A condition of discourse has certainly been defined in South Sudan, whereby journalists are considered inherently irresponsible in their reporting – either by stoking inter-communal conflict, wrongly smearing the reputation of upstanding authority figures or by exposing the citizenry to biased and partisan political opinion dressed up as fact.

Consequently, In South Sudan, defamation (making a statement that hurts someone’s reputation) is now a criminal offence that can land a journalist with a 20 year prison sentence if proven guilty. This law has never been applied. There has been no need to take matters through the courts. Since this government decided to delegate media regulatory authority to the National Security Service, repeated acts of harassment, intimidation, assault, extra-judicial arrest and detention, disappearances and print run confiscations have served their purpose in terrorizing journalists into self-censorship.

Alfred Taban, chairman of the Association of Media Development in South Sudan (AMDISS), lamented that the:

“Conditions for reporters and media owners is changing from bad to worse every day.”

So recent reports that AMDISS will assist the government in drawing up a list of individuals who are authorized to work as journalists, is worrying. Not only because the government will now have the ability to pick and choose who it deems can be journalists (and by implication forbid all others from the profession), but also as a sign that the repeated harassment may have finally broken the spirit of those once considered the fiercest advocates of a free press in South Sudan.

What should we do about it?

We citizens need to keep advocating for a free press by showing our support and solidarity for journalists who are now facing a challenge every bit as oppressive as that faced under the grinding brutality of the old enemy in Khartoum.

Remember journalists like George Livio Bahara who is still being illegally held without charge after being detained nearly a year ago. He is now in Juba following transfer from detention in Wau.

Reach out to your representatives in government – at the state and national level – and make sure they understand how important a free press is to you as a citizen. Make them understand that their silence is tantamount to complicity and that this will be noted at the next election.

But perhaps, more importantly, when consuming news, insist on discriminating for yourself between fact and opinion. Don’t let government infantilise you by taking that opportunity away from you. My fellow citizens, you have a mind and must be allowed to use it.

A free press is one of the fundamental institutions that we need to strengthen instead of incrementally abolishing. Without a free press, we are in real danger of losing our nascent democracy. For those who think this is no great loss because the country needs protecting from itself and from outsiders, I’d like to remind you of something said a long time ago:

“This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears he is a protector.”