South Sudan: End blocking of online news sites

ARTICLE 19 is concerned by the recent decision by South Sudan’s National Communication Authority to block four South Sudanese news websites and blogs: Radio Tamazuj, a Dutch-backed radio station and website, Paris-based Sudan Tribune news website, and Paanluel Wel and Nyamilepedia blogs. The decision was supposedly made because the websites were publishing “hostile messages” against the government.

“Decisions like this are further evidence of worsening press freedom in the country, despite the fact that now more than ever an independent press is essential to provide information on the ongoing the political stalemate and civil war, that has led to thousands of civilian casualties,” said Henry Maina, ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa Regional Director.

“Under international law, media – including online media and bloggers – have the right to seek and impart information and ideas, and the public has a corresponding right to receive them. This is all the more important in times of conflict and political uncertainty, where individuals need to be informed in order to be able to understand and discuss the evolution of their country, including in ways that are critical of authorities” he added.

In March 2017, during South Sudan’s Universal Periodic Review, ARTICLE 19 expressed to the United Nations Human Rights Council its grave concern about the severe deterioration of the situation for freedom of expression in South Sudan and echoed the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan’s observations, that the country “is today one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to work.” In response, the South Sudan government committed to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and to harmonize national legislation with the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGNU)’s international obligations.

ARTICLE 19 is disappointed that the South Sudan government is not following up on its March 2017 commitments and has instead over the past month targeted online journalists and foreign journalists.

Attempts to block access to news websites and blogs is a serious violation of the right to freedom of expression. Freedom of expression, including online expression, is essential for the development of South Sudan to ensure the public are informed and are able to engage in political debate.

Article 24 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Sudan, 2011, guarantees freedom of expression, information and the media and allows restrictions on these rights only as prescribed by law. This move by South Sudan’s National Communication Authority and the South Sudan Media Authority contravenes South Sudan’s commitments under their own constitution as there was no judicial or democratic process in blocking the websites or banning the foreign journalists.

Under international law, blocking is a disproportionate interference with the right to freedom of expression as it is ineffective to achieve its stated purpose. However, where governments do seek to impose blocking measures, any such measure must be provided by law. Moreover, blocking should only be permitted in respect of content which is unlawful or can otherwise be legitimately restricted under international standards on freedom of expression.

In order for blocking orders to be truly compatible with international human rights standards, the following procedural safeguards should be put in place:

  • When a public authority or third party applies for a blocking order, ISPs or other relevant internet intermediaries must be given the opportunity to be heard in order to contest the application;
  • There should similarly be procedures in place allowing other interested parties, such as free expression advocates or digital rights organisations, to intervene in proceedings in which a blocking order is sought;

“Under this new directive, the National Communication Authority could implement a wider blockage of websites that are critical of the government. The use of arbitrary directives to block access to media outlets for vague and unsubstantiated reasons threatens to limit freedom of expression and public debate on important national issues,” added Maina.

ARTICLE 19 urges South Sudan’s National Communication Authority to retract this directive without delay and to ensure that blocking of online content is only invoked as a measure of last resort; is ordered by an independent and impartial court or adjudicatory body; and is strictly proportionate to the aim pursued. We also urge South Sudan’s government to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and to harmonize national legislation with the TGNU’s international obligations.

For more information and arranging media interviews, please contact Henry Maina, Director of ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa at [email protected] or call on +254 727 862230

Editorial notes:

The sections of the Constitution of the Republic of South Sudan, 2011 provide as follows:

24. Freedom of Expression and Media

  1. Every citizen shall have the right to the freedom of expression, reception and dissemination of information, publication, and access to the press without prejudice to public order, safety or morals as prescribed by law.
  2. All levels of government shall guarantee the freedom of the press and other media as shall be regulated by law in a democratic society.
  3. All media shall abide by professional ethics.