With the fighting in South Sudan threatening to break into a tribal conflict, journalists there have become targets of security agencies, including the police and army.
This has left many local journalists with only option of not reporting at all - if they are to stay safe. They say that as much as they try to be impartial during these turbulent times, they are perceived first and foremost in terms of their tribal identity rather than as journalists practising their profession.
DW’s Daniel Pelz spoke with Tom Rhodes, East Africa’s representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists
DW: CPJ has complained that press freedom in South Sudan has been deteriorating in 2013 – what is the situation now that the fighting has broken out?
Tom Rhodes: It’s a good question and a hard one to answer. We’ve seen a gradual deterioration of press freedoms this year, largely because of the infighting within the ruling party and now that we have this massive breakout between two members of the ruling party, I am very worried that the conditions may even get worse.
What do you hear from journalists inside South Sudan about their situation at the moment?
Well it’s a mixed picture. We are seeing a lot of local reporters actually not reporting because they are too scared to go out in the field and that has of course left a vacuum in news reporting. Many of the international reporters are probably having a little bit of security and are able to get the story out there. Local sources that I have spoken to said they just simply do not feel that they are in a position to report stories in Juba.
Are they afraid that they will be targeted because they are journalists or theyare just worried that they could be caught up in the crossfire?
I think more the latter, for example I was talking to one freelancer on Thursday who belongs to the Dinka tribe. He said even if he is a reporter and he tries to be impartial as he can, he is still seen as a Dinka and not as a journalist.So he was afraid of retribution by other tribes because unfortunately this conflict has taken a sort of tribal line despite the fact that it is more political.
Do journalists also complain about intimidation by the security forces like the police and the army now that the situation has escalated?
Sure, I have cases of journalists who have come across terrible scenes at night, not only in Juba but also in Bor. We need to take into account that the conflict has particularly exploded in Bor in Jonglei state. One source I spoke to in Bor, unfortunately who couldn’t speak for long, told me that he was too scared to cover a particular case because of the violent nature of the security forces involved.
Can you tell us exactly what happened to him?
Sure, there was a violent scene at the market place in Bor and he tried to go there to cover it with his camera but was assaulted in the end presumably by security forces.
If you look at the situation before the violence escalated and now would you say that there is a systematic crackdown on the media in South Sudan or is rather the individual action by some members of security forces?
Judging by the nature of this conflict which erupted on Sunday night I get the impression that it’s more of an ad hoc affair rather than a systematic planned conflict, and that being the case there just seems to be a direct targeting of the press. He said these guys (soldiers) were fighting. They don’t have any consideration for civilians so it can be very hard for them to report the story. It’s amazing the different narratives you are getting across the media news wires on what’s going on. There a different theories to what triggered this conflict and up to today we don’t have a clear picture and I think that reflects the problems the press are facing trying to cover the story.
President Salva Kiir rejected a media bill that parliament had passed, what does that say about the state of press freedom, setting aside this conflict situation?
That’s one of the sad things. In 2007 South Sudan drafted three very promising media bills. Up to today we’ve been waiting for them to be passed and I think they will go a long way to protect journalists in the field - having an impartial media is one of the bills. So the fact that it has taken so long for them to be passed and the fact that the president is sitting on these bills is very worrying. It shows a genuine disinterest in allowing the press to be free and impartial.
What should the government of South Sudan do to protect journalists in this situation?
They must obviously find some kind of resolution and make sure that this conflict doesn’t escalate further. In relation to journalists, all these security operatives and military personnel should understand the role of the press especially in Juba where the security forces don’t understand the concept of a free press and routinely detain and torture journalists. South Sudan has been at war for so any years and unfortunately the war mentality is still lingering on despite these years of peace and until that mentality changes, it’s always going to be an a challenge for the press in South Sudan.