Police in south Sudan seized 2 500 copies of a newspaper before it could be distributed, its editor said stoking fears of a media crackdown ahead of the region’s independence in July.
The south voted in January to secede from the north, but a long-awaited media law is yet to be passed and publications operating in the region emerging from decades of civil war say they do not know where they stand on press freedoms.
Michael Koma, editor of the independent twice-weekly Juba Post, which is printed in the north and flown south for distribution, said Thursday’s edition was taken by “public security police” at the airport, Reuters reports.
“They confiscated our copies at Juba airport because of a story about George Athor,” Koma told Reuters. “They asked us to explain how what we were printing was possible, that Athor would attack Juba … we were quoting a spokesman.”
Renegade army officer George Athor rebelled after disputing 2010 elections in the south and has since clashed with the South Sudan army, including an attack in February killing 200 people.
Athor says rebels from two of Sudan’s oil-producing states are coordinating with him, raising fears the south will struggle to control its vast territory after independence.
The Juba Post article quoted a spokesman they linked to Athor as saying “forces loyal to General Athor will launch a heavy attack in Juba shortly before South Sudan hoists her national flag.”
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
Koma said the confiscation was another attack on freedom of expression in the south, adding that he has been asked to come to the Information Ministry next week to explain the article.
“This is more intimidation and harassment of the media, of journalists. We urge the government to pass a media law so we know where we stand. We must have freedom of expression.”
The south’s Information Minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, said the Juba Post had contacted him about the incident, and though he could not yet confirm it he said he did not support halting distribution of a newspaper because of its content.
“Hostile articles should be allowed to run, that is freedom of expression which we support,” Benjamin told Reuters, adding that he was chasing more information on the Post’s allegations.
The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the move.
“We are alarmed that the authorities in Juba are already resorting to censorship,” CPJ’s East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes said in a statement. “This does not bode well for press freedom in what will become Africa’s newest state.”
South Sudan has a patchy record on protecting media freedom. Journalists have reported being harassed or detained during 2010 elections and at other times of political tension.
In February the offices of the south’s Citizen newspaper were raided by police waving guns in retaliation to an article critical of security forces, its editor said. Officials said the officers were acting alone, not under instruction.
Journalists and government officials have called for the new media law so each knows where they stand. Journalists say a dispute over part of the media law restricting investigations into government corruption had delayed its passage.
The south’s independence referendum was the result of a peace agreement in 2005 which ended decades of north-south civil war. Fought over differences in ethnicity, religion, ideology and oil, it claimed the lives of at least two million people.