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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Functionalizing Criticism and Diverse Political Opinions in South Sudan

When Diing Chan Awuol (Isaiah Abraham), a prominent South Sudanese political commenter, was killed in December of 2012, many of us hoped that his assassination would prompt the government’s protection of sound societal consciousness.


Unfortunately, Abraham’s death would only prove to be the beginning of the darkest chapter in South Sudanese politics, which would see an intensified war on critical voices, journalists and political opponents. Having realized what Abraham’s assassination would mean for the government’s public relations, the government promised to bring his assassins to book. So about a month later, on January 3, 2013, the then minister of information, Dr. Barnaba Marial Benjamin, told the nation on South Sudan Television (SSTV, now South Sudan Broadcasting Corporation, SSBC) that a number of suspects had been arrested. Sadly, until this day, none of the then claimed culprits has either been indicted or brought to book.

Ironically, the government, instead, formalized its repressive agenda against freedom of speech and freedom of the press, things which are clearly guaranteed in South Sudan Transitional Constitution of 2011 (24, 1-3). In October of 2014, the parliament passed a very controversial bill, which gave South Sudan National Security agents a carte blanche in their dealing with the press and political opponents.

Having adopted Khartoum’s culture of media censorship, the National Security agents confiscated newspaper publications that criticized the government. Advertising contracts were only given to newspapers allied with the ruling party or those that toed the official party line. The usually grumpy minister of information, Michael Makuei, took it upon himself to warn journalists who attempted to present a balanced newscast to South Sudanese. Makuei accused journalists of being supportive of rebels of Dr. Riek Machar, the leader of SPLM/A in Opposition. “If you go and interview a rebel and then you come and play that material, disseminating it to the people, what are you doing?” Makuei asked. Any report that tried to seek alternative perspectives from the opposition was translated as collaboration with Riek’s rebellion. National security then intensified its targeted intimidation and arbitrary arrests of journalists and activists. This is the fate Deng Athuai, a prominent South Sudanese activist, would suffer. He would be arrested, beaten and even shot for merely criticizing the government.
In the wake of this repressive atmosphere, some news publications in Juba either ceased publication or entered into self-censorship to remain in business or benefit from advertisement dollars. Newspapers such as Al-Mijhar al-Siyasi, Juba Monitor, Nation Mirror, Bakhita Radio, which remained faithful to journalistic honesty, suffered from increased security harassment, seizures and shut-down. As George Livio of Radio Miraya languished in jail since 2014, in December of 2015, National Security Services abducted Joseph Afandi of Al Tabeer newspaper and kept him in an undisclosed location until they released him in February with neither charges nor any reason why he was arrested in the first place. And in March of this year, Joseph Afandi, again, was abducted by national security agents, beaten, burnt with melted plastic and left for dead in a graveyard where his colleagues would later find him. This is just for merely criticizing the ruling party, Sudan People Liberation Moment (SPLM). Another journalist who’d suffered arbitrary arrest by National Security is Sylvester Luati of Anisa FM, who was arrested and released shortly after.

President Kiir underscored this by warning journalists in August of 2015: “If anybody among [journalists] does not know that this country has killed people, we will demonstrate it one day, one time. ... Freedom of the press does not mean you work against the country.” This prompted a strongly worded criticism by Tom Rhodes of Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). A concerned Rhodes said that “The leader of any country threatening to kill journalists is extremely dangerous and utterly unacceptable…we call on President Salva Kiir to retract his comments immediately.” Statements like President Kiir’s make the death of five journalists in Western Bahr El Ghazal a painful remainder. Randa George Adam, Dalia Marko, Adam Juma Adam, Musa Mohammed Dhaiyah and Butrus Martin Khamis were killed in an ambush.

So what does this mean for South Sudan? Given the central place ideas and their critique play in any sociopolitical and socioeconomic development, the above repressive, official actions shouldn’t be taken lightly. First of all, no nation can develop ideologically as an institution of a single opinion. Diverse opinions and ideas need to be presented, debated, and thoroughly analyzed in order to evaluate their practical benefit to the nation. This democratic exercise, while enshrined in the South Sudan constitution, is being eliminated or threatened in the national consciousness. To expect all citizens to ascribe to a political singularity—an untested political ideal—is to subject the country to sociopolitical and socioeconomic stagnation. How do you ascertain that given ideas and ideologies aren’t working if they are not subjected to robust scrutiny?

As long as this disenfranchising climate continues, South Sudan isn’t going to benefit from the value of diverse opinions and creative capacities of her peoples. Journalists not only tell people things they need to know in order to enter national debates on important issues, they also help the government see where it goes wrong. This is imperative in sieving through what’s working and what isn’t so that the government can change course.


Unfortunately, by repressing freedom of press and of speech, the government is subjecting South Sudanese to fallacious whims of leaders, who want to remain in power. This desire to remain in power makes it prudent for South Sudanese officials to make sure that the average citizen is fed only the official narrative without any recourse, by civilians, to means of assessing the errors and dangers in such officials’ political pretensions and biases. A nation of unquestioning citizens is a nation that’s being driven to towards socioeconomic demise and political decay.

Given the tribalized nature of the South Sudanese society, media censorship turns to be hard on targeted tribes in order to shield the government from political criticism. And this exacerbates tense political climates and foment negative feelings among the tribes that feel marginalized. The only method through which they could air their grievances is targeted by the government. This doesn’t help in curbing political volatility and inter-tribal hatred.
What the government of South Sudan needs to do is to capitalize on criticism of all kinds. Through experts and educated government officials, the government should use what critics say to improve on governance, economic and political performance and war on corruption. Should the government feel wrongly or unfairly criticized, it can either present the official, fact-based response, or open a legal case instead of intimidations, arbitrary arrests or killings. Criticism should be seen by the government of South Sudan as an efficient way to present its narratives in tested and scrutinized avenues. This would not only give government acknowledged professionalism, it would also help in accountability and transparency that makes citizens more receptive to official, partisan projects. With conscious society, free media and free democratic exercise, the government can benefit by improving its image. Any atmosphere that fosters open debate, can encourage the growth of creative, productive, development-conscious populace. But as long as formalized war on free debate and press continues, South Sudan will remain in a repressive labyrinth.

Follow the author on twitter @kuirthiy