Mohammed Arkou Adiebou Ali, a Sudan Radio Service journalist who was arrested in Wau, in the state of Western Bahr el Ghazal, on 11 May for allegedly taking photos without government permission, was released yesterday in Juba and left at once for the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.
Arkou is believed to have been treated badly during his three weeks in detention. He was transferred to Wau to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, on 24 May.
Reporters Without Borders is relieved by his release but firmly condemns his detention. Recent press freedom violations have undermined hopes that South Sudan, which will gain its independence in a month’s time, would make free expression one of its founding principles.
Media freedom worsens steadily in south, old problems recur in north
As South Sudan prepares to become officially independent in July, Reporters Without Borders is appalled by recent developments affecting press freedom and appeals in particular to the new country’s president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, to release the Darfuri journalist Mohammed Arkou Adiebou Ali without delay.
Employed by Sudan Radio Service, Arkou was arrested by South Sudan’s security services in Wau on 11 May for taking photos without government permission, although the area where he was arrested is not a militarized one. He was transferred on 24 May to Juba, South Sudan’s capital. Sources have told Reporters Without Borders he may have been tortured physically and mentally.
“We are concerned for Arkou’s health and call for his immediate and unconditional release,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The arbitrary nature of his arrest, the failure to provide his colleagues with any information, and now the possibility of mistreatment all reflect the prevailing impunity in a country where the security forces seem to be free to arrest journalists at will. The abuses against journalists and news media by the South Sudanese security forces must stop. To this end, we urge the authorities to fill the legal void surrounding the media’s status by quickly adopting a law that clearly and explicitly ensures the existence of a free and independent press and offers guarantees for the safety of journalists.
“With just over a month to go to South Sudan’s independence, the world’s eyes are turned on this country. We remind President Mayardit, who is also Sudan’s vice-president, that his people have considerable and legitimate expectations as regards their rights and freedoms.”
Journalists are often harassed, interrogated or detained in South Sudan but the conditions in which Arkou is being held and the possible mistreatment indicate that this is more than a routine case of harassment. The authorities say he had several different versions of his identity papers but no valid charge has been brought against him.
Isaac Vuni, a freelance journalist who used to work for South Sudan’s information ministry, was held from 28 March to 2 May. His arrest by the Juba police was carried out with the utmost secrecy and there was no news of him for a long time. While working for the Sudan Tribune, he was detained and mistreated at Juba police headquarters on 29 July 2009 after writing an article blaming members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and the South Sudan government for problems at Nile Commercial Bank, a local privately-owned bank.
Two months ago, on 2 April, 2,500 copies of the Juba Post that were to have been distributed in the south of the country were seized by the South Sudan police at Juba airport. An independent bi-weekly that circulates mainly in the Juba region, it quoted Dok James Puok, a spokesman for dissident forces, as saying, “Forces loyal to Gen. George Athor will launch a heavy attack in Juba shortly before South Sudan hoists her national flag.” After quoting this statement, Juba Post editor Michael Koma was summoned to the information ministry to explain the report’s content. A week after this seizure, information minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said in an interview for the Sudan Tribune that he wanted to put a stop to such practices and to help the media in their work.
There has nonetheless been no let-up in press freedom violations by the security forces, and they continue to go unpunished. A harmful climate for free expression seems to have become generalized. Michael Koma and another Juba Post journalist, Deng Atem Kuol were held by the police for nine hours in February and were accused of defaming Ivory Bank, another locally-owned bank, in an article referring to the possibility of its going bankrupt. Around the same time, police raided the headquarters of the English-language newspaper The Citizen and ordered its journalists not to write about armed forces misconduct any more.
No improvement in the north
Meanwhile, the press freedom situation is as bad as ever in the north of the country, where the government in Khartoum and the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) continue to use arbitrary arrests, intimidation and seizures to control and censor the media.
In one of the latest cases, newspaper reporter Abulgasim Ibrahim was detained for several hours on 17 May on the orders of finance minister Ali Mahmoud El Rasoud, who reacted angrily when Ibrahim produced compromising financial documents during an interview. The minister accused Ibrahim, whose newspaper, Al-Sudani Daily, supports the ruling National Congress Party, of gaining access to documents from his office without his permission.
Two journalists – Mohamed Alfatih Himma of Al-Midan (an opposition paper published by the Sudanese Communist Party) and Rashan Owshi of Al-Tayar Arabic Daily – were arbitrarily detained at a checkpoint at Jabal Awlia on 14 May, interrogated by military intelligence for seven hours about their return route to Khartoum from Kadugli, in South Kurdufan state, and were then handed over to the police.
No explanation was given for their arrest, but it was thought to be linked to their coverage of governor Ahmed Haroun’s reelection in polling held from 2 to 4 May in South Kurdufan, which is claimed by both northern and southern Sudan. When all of the copies of the Sunday edition of Al-Tayar Arabic Daily were seized by the security forces on 1 May, editor Osman Murghni said the aim was to manifest the government’s displeasure with its coverage of the election in this sensitive region.
As in South Sudan, the authorities in Khartoum often seize entire issues of newspapers as they come off the printing presses as a way to make them suffer financially and thereby pressure them into changing their editorial policies. Two independent newspapers, Al-Midan and Ajrass Al-Hurriya, staged a strike on 9 April in protest against this form of harassment.
A daily affiliated to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, Ajrass Al-Hurriya did not appear on 6 April because security forces went to its printing presses late at night and, without giving any explanation, ordered staff not to distribute the latest issue, although it had already been printed.