Rights violations worsen South Sudan political environment
South Sudan’s political journey out of transition government could be harmed by a continual rights violation including repression of the media.
And as the country prepares for scheduled elections next year in December 2024, a new report is shedding light on how censorship of the media is harming free reporting as well as adding to the country’s continual problems.
The country is already facing the additional burden of accommodating the more than 200,000 South Sudan returnees fleeing Sudan war, while seeking funds to prepare for the polls.
But at a press conference in Nairobi, Kenya, on October 5, the United Nations on Human Rights Commission in South Sudan said that media censorship will be the biggest impediment to free and fair elections.
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The UN Commission released a report titled, Entrenched repression: systematic curtailment of the democratic and civic space in South Sudan, warning that Juba must urgently cease unlawful media censorship, end intolerable restrictions on civic and political activities, and halt attacks on journalists and human rights defenders.
Yasmin Sooka, the chair of the UN Human Rights Commission in South Sudan said the government treats journalists and civil society members who voice critique as enemies of the ruling political party (South Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM reflecting its extreme intolerance of all forms of public scrutiny and critical views, which does not bode well for democratic prospects.
“Independent media and a vibrant civil society represent critical voices in developing accountable governance, and the democratic processes required to enable peace and ensure human rights,” said Sooka.
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The report is based on the commission’s independent investigations in 2023. It examines the current situation of South Sudanese media and civil society actors, both in and outside of the country.
It details how the National Security Service (NSS imposes the State’s regime of censorship in newsrooms and interferes heavily with the activities of civil society groups.
Its officers deploy to newsrooms to review content and cut stories deemed critical or inconvenient to the Government, including coverage of political and human rights issues.
The report says that Independent online media are routinely targeted by cyberattacks and website blockages. NSS also demands civil society groups seek prior authorisations for all activities, which are then monitored to dissuade talk on topics and events that authorities would prefer them to avoid.
The UN published the report even as the Reconstituted Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (RJMEC on Thursday convened its 32nd monthly meeting in Juba to mark five years of the peace agreement between SPLM and various warring factions.
RJMEC Chair Maj-Gen Charles Tai Gituai said parties have mostly “stayed the course of peace.” But he added that the country must do more to be ready forelections.
“A lot of work still remains to be done to complete the critical pending tasks necessary to effect South Sudan’s democratic transition…it is imperative for the Revitalised Transitional Government of National Unity (RTGoNU to provide to the people of South Sudan clarity on election preparedness.”
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One of the things the country must do is finalise its security reforms including professionalising the defence and police forces, seen as critical to ending violations.
According to the World Press Freedom Index (WPFI 2023, South Sudan ranks 118th out of 180 countries and at least nine journalists have been killed in the country since 2014.
The UN Commission’s report focuses on the state’s resistance to democracy as a legacy of decades of factionalism in the militarised liberation movement, and reflective of a deep sense of entitlement among the ruling class to capture the spoils of independence.
According to Commissioner Barney Afako. It is a tragic irony that in an independent South Sudan, its liberators, now in government, are intolerant of public scrutiny, discussion of critical views, and political opposition.
He advised that abandoning these illiberal and autocratic practices will be essential if South Sudanese are to realise the aspirations for freedom that drove their quest for independence.
Besides media freedom, the 2018 Revitalised Peace Agreement demands that before elections, there must be unifying security forces, the establishment of transitional justice mechanisms, and the enactment of a permanent constitution.
The commission says that while South Sudanese are desperate to have an accountable government that can deliver on its human rights obligations, rushing toward elections without these key fundamentals in place risks compounding grievances and fueling further violence, with potentially disastrous impacts for the citizens and the country its future.
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“South Sudan still lacks an umpire to review and curtail the repression of human rights and to resolve disputes that may arise through electoral processes. There is no independent and properly resourced judiciary, and the Government continues dragging its feet in establishing transitional justice institutions,” said Commissioner Carlos Castresana Fernandez.
He said that these are politically calculated strategies to maintain the supremacy of ruling elites, thereby entrenching the status quo, that are incompatible with the state’s international human rights law obligations.
In the meantime, as nearly 300,000 returnees continue to stream back to South Sudan from Khartoum and other areas, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP warns of a looming hunger emergency for South Sudanese fleeing conflict in Sudan. WFP says that 90 percent of returnee families are experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity.
Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders says that since the fighting erupted in Sudan in April, around 290,000 people have entered South Sudan – 80 percent of them through the Joda border in Upper Nile state.
Read:Sudan war drives 100,000 refugees over border
Their assessment says returnees can spend weeks or even months at the informal transit centres in Renk, where exhausted people have limited access to food, shelter, water, sanitation, and healthcare. According to Jocelyn Yapi, MSF head of mission in South Sudan, aid in Renk cannot meet the demands and appeals for donors to ensure that primary healthcare services should be made available at all times on the border for those coming with medical conditions.