South Sudan: Oral statement to HRC37 interactive dialogue with the Commission on South Sudan

Mr. President,

ARTICLE 19 shares the Commission’s condemnation of war crimes and crimes against humanity in South Sudan, and is specifically concerned at how violations of freedom of expression in this context contribute to a cycle of violence and erode nascent efforts to restore peace.

Attacks, including murders, against journalists, and impunity for those crimes, is a particular concern.

On 6 February 2018, two journalists covering protests against an arms embargo at the UN Mission main camp near Juba International Airport were beaten by participants: Bakhita Radio journalist, Gale Julius, and one other unidentified female media worker. This must be fully investigated.

Impunity for murders and attacks against journalists and media workers in 2016 – 2017, including:

  • On 27 August 2017, Christopher Allen, freelance reporter and photojournalist, was killed in heavy fighting while reporting on the war in the town of Kaya in Yei River State;
  • In October 2016, Malek Bol, reporter for the daily Al-Maugif newspaper, was abducted and tortured, following an article on social media he shared criticizing the crisis and corruption in the country South Sudan’s e. He was found left for the dead at Juba’s Gumba cemetery.
  • On 26 September 2016, Isaac Vuni, freelance journalist, was found murdered, following his reports on corruption in state institutions in 2009. He had been kidnapped by unknown men at his Kerepi village along the Juba-Nimule road in June 2016.
  • On 11 July 2016, John Gatluak Manguet Nhial reporter for Radio Naath FM, was murdered in Juba, allegedly targeted for his ethnicity.
  • In March 2016, Joseph Afandi was abducted and tortured. He had criticized the government’s handling of the civil war.

UNESCO has condemned 10 cases of killed journalists in South Sudan between 2012 and 2016, and the government has failed to resolve any of those cases, or provide information to UNESCO’s Director General on the status of judicial inquiries to those killings.

We ask the Commission what it can do to ensure accountability in these specific crimes against journalists, who in the context of armed conflicts are civilians.

While protecting freedom of expression is essential to safeguarding peace, ARTICLE 19 remains concerned that the legal framework in South Sudan will not be conducive to securing truth, and is undermining the media’s scrutiny of reconciliation and accountability processes, as well as the public’s participation in those processes.

Criminal penalties for defamation, in Article 289 of the Penal Code 2008, and Section 5 of the Media Authority Act, have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and have been abused to target the media.

Articles 75 and Article 76 of the Penal Code on “publishing or communicating false statements prejudicial to Southern Sudan”, and “undermining authority of or insulting the president” must also be repealed. The National Security Service Law also requires significant amendments to protect individuals from arbitrary arrest, detention, and surveillance, and there must be accountability for violations committed by the National Security Service.

We note additional obstacles to the media in the country, for example, the difficulties journalists for Eye Radio recently faced in seeking visas to travel to Addis Ababa to cover the recently concluded “peace revitalization forum” – limiting the information available to the public on this important meeting.

We are also concerned by restrictions on civic space, and how this may also undermine transitional justice efforts. The NGO Act 2016 must also be revised in line with international human rights law, including to remove restrictive provisions on the nationality of staff, which limits civil society organisation’s access to the expertise of non-nationals

We underscore the Commission’s recommendations for the Government of South Sudan to:

  • Ensure the security and freedom of expression and work of civil society actors, including the media and human rights defenders; and create an environment conducive to the freedoms of speech, association and the media; and,
  • Initiate civic engagement and consultations with victims, civil society, including human rights defenders, women leaders, religious and traditional leaders, to raise awareness on issues involved and frame Transitional Justice to meet their demands.

In lieu of the creation of a hybrid court by the African Union, we join others in urging the Human Rights Council to renew the Commission’s mandate for a further year, so they can continue collecting evidence on war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as serious freedom of expression violations, such as the killing of journalists.

This will be essential to ensuring not only accountability for those crimes, but also critical for victims’ and survivors’ rights to truth.