South Sudan’s National Security Service (NSS) should stop seizing and shutting down newspapers as well as harassing, intimidating and unlawfully detaining journalists, two leading human rights organizations said today in a joint report.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said that against the backdrop of an internal armed conflict that has raged for seven months across much of the country, the moves are restricting freedom of expression and curtailing public debate about how to end the conflict. The groups called for an end to these abuses and for South Sudan’s parliament to ensure proper oversight of the NSS, in line with international human rights law and standards.
“The government clampdown takes place at a time when South Sudan most needs independent voices to contribute to discussions about how to end the political crisis and internal armed conflict,” said Elizabeth Ashamu Deng, South Sudan researcher at Amnesty International. “Abuses by the National Security Service—an institution that still has no law governing it—have especially contributed to a growing atmosphere of fear among journalists and human rights defenders.”
The groups documented unlawful restrictions on expression and the media since the conflict began in December 2013. Over the past seven months, senior government officials have banned journalists from interviewing opposition leaders. Those who have done so or who have reported on human rights violations by government forces have faced intimidation. Authorities have also restricted reporting on the conflict, human rights violations, and debates surrounding federalism in South Sudan.
The NSS has harassed and detained journalists, summoned them for questioning and told some to leave the country. One newspaper, the Almajhar Alsayasy was given explicit instructions to cease publication. The government has held issues of another weekly newspaper, Juba Monitor, eight times in the past seven months. In June, an entire run of The Citizen, a weekly newspaper was seized.
“Right now journalists and commentators cannot do their work and report freely on the ongoing conflict without fear of retribution by state security forces,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “We’ve seen the NSS and other authorities erode freedom of expression since South Sudan’s independence through abusive practices: these should end now.”
The war has had a direct impact on South Sudan’s media. Many journalists have been displaced due to the fighting or forced to leave the country, including because they are afraid they will be targeted based on their ethnicity. Media infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed, including radio stations in Leer and Malakal in Upper Nile State and in Bor, Jonglei State.
“Any hope for justice for crimes committed during the new conflict and the success of any future truth-telling process will require a safe environment in which South Sudanese can speak openly,” Ashamu Deng said. “If South Sudan hopes for a peaceful future, covering up crimes must not be allowed and freedom of expression must be protected, not attacked.”
South Sudan’s conflict began in the capital, Juba, in December, but quickly spread. The fighting has been characterized by unlawful attacks on civilians—often targeted and killed because of their ethnicity—and on civilian property. The violence has killed thousands of people, largely destroyed key towns and forced an estimated 1.5 million people to flee their homes, often to places where they face severe hunger.
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have documented abuses that constitute war crimes and potential crimes against humanity by both government and opposition forces.
An African Union Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan was initiated soon after the conflict erupted but has been slow to begin investigating human rights violations. The Commission of Inquiry should ensure that violations of freedom of expression are addressed in its research and should make recommendations on how this basic right could be better protected in South Sudan, including through institutional reform of the NSS.
A bill to define and limit NSS powers was drafted by the Justice Ministry and introduced in the National Legislative Assembly in May. The draft bill gives NSS officers the same powers to arrest and detain as the police, but does not specify permissible detention sites, or guarantee basic due process rights, such as the right to counsel or to be brought before a tribunal within a fixed time period. The draft grants broad criminal immunity to NSS officers and powers of surveillance and to search and seize property without clear judicial oversight.
The bill should be revised immediately to limit the sweeping powers for the NSS to arrest and detain people and to ensure that any communications surveillance is subject to judicial oversight. The members of parliament should ensure that the law complies with international human rights law and standards.