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Free Speech Threatened in South Sudan


Sound equipment is seen inside Bakhita Radio station in Juba, South Sudan. (FILE) REUTERS/Adriane Ohanesian

Security forces in South Sudan shut down a prominent independent radio station and briefly detained its news director.

Security forces in South Sudan shut down a prominent independent radio station and briefly detained its news director over its coverage of renewed fighting between government troops and anti-government rebels. It is the latest example of efforts by South Sudanese leaders to close the public space in their troubled nation, and is unacceptable in a democracy.

Juba-based Bakhita Radio, part of a network of community-run radio stations run by the Roman Catholic Church, was ordered off the air August 16 and news editor Ocen David Nicholas briefly taken into custody. A government spokesman said the station will be shuttered until officials meet with managers to discuss its news coverage. The action was taken, the spokesman said, because the station was broadcasting rebel views on the conflict, which began in December and has cost thousands of lives.

The report in question involved skirmishing near the town of Bentiu in Unity State, an incident that broke the latest in a series of cease fires agreed to as the warring factions are supposed to negotiate an end to the fighting and establish a transitional government. The broadcast quoted a government spokesman saying rebel forces struck first, attacking government positions near the town, and a rebel spokesman refuting that, saying government troops provoked the fight. To South Sudanese leaders, such balance – a standard of responsible journalism – apparently is unacceptable.

Several journalists have been detained in similar incidents since the fighting started, creating an atmosphere that human rights groups have described as one of fear and intimidation. The United States is monitoring the situation closely and has made its concerns known about the abridgement of the freedom of expression in South Sudan. We urge the government to fully adhere to its constitutional guarantees and international obligations.

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