A new report from the UN commission on human rights in South Sudan has revealed that the African country is suppressing journalists and rights activists by intimidation, surveillance and data harvesting.
The report warned that the clampdown on freedoms could hamper south Sudan’s ability to conduct credible elections in 2024.
The UN commission said the reports of abuse were confirmed by its independent investigations.
The report includes accounts of nearly 100 state-sponsored human rights violations including intimidation, harassment, violence, arbitrary detentions and torture, as well as sexual violence against female reporters.
The Commissioner, Barney Afako said, “The state is attacking journalists, activists and even ordinary citizens – anybody who dares to discuss issues that the authorities may deem either sensitive or critical of their positions.”
“[This] treatment severely undermines the prospects for peace and democratisation in South Sudan,” Afako added.
The 57-page report details invasive surveillance and interference of media and civil society activity by the country’s National Security Service, including demands by security authorities for detailed information on any meetings and workshops held by these groups, and lists of people participating.
The report found that security officers were often present at such meetings and in newsrooms across the country, where they monitor and suppress information critical of the government.
The commission said independent media outlets were not exempt and reported incidents of cyber-attacks and website blocking.
“The intention and effect of these attacks is to block access to critical information and to stifle public debate and discussion,” Afako noted, adding that opposition leaders also reported needing consent to hold public assemblies.
South Sudan is preparing for an election in December 2024, its first since gaining a hard-fought independence from Sudan in 2011.
The South Sudanese had high hopes for their new state, but it plunged into a prolonged civil war between factions loyal to the country’s President, Salva Kiir, and the opposition leader, first Vice President, Riek Machar, which played out along ethnic lines.
In 2018, the leaders signed a peace deal that ended hostilities but peace remains fragile, and important reforms under the agreement have stalled, including plans for an independent judiciary and a new constitution.
The UN commission has cautioned that the government clampdown on media, civil society and critics is stifling freedom of speech and assembly before the elections, and mirrors tactics used during the regime in Khartoum, when the country was still part of Sudan.
“It is a tragic irony that in an independent South Sudan, the liberators who are now in government, are intolerant of public scrutiny, of critical views, and political opposition … this is antithetical to democratic governance and processes which South Sudanese are aspiring towards.”Barney Afako
UN Commission Urges Government To Halt Rights Abuse
The commission called on the South Sudan government to end harassment of journalists, rights defenders and civil society groups and to increase oversight of its security services.
It said that action on the peace deal, including judicial reform and constitution-making, was urgent.
The commission cautioned in its report, “Holding elections without addressing security concerns, creating an enabling environment, and completing the technical arrangements risks compounding grievances and fuelling further violence.”
The UN says many reporters and activists it interviewed practised self-censorship and avoided important public interest stories.
Investigations into the lack of transparency in the management of the country’s oil wealth were particularly sensitive, as were stories that scrutinise government action in the humanitarian crisis facing the country, where roughly 76% of the population is estimated to be in need of humanitarian assistance.