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Promoting freedom of the press in South Sudan

Canada in South Sudan
Human rights
August 2018

Freedom of the press plays a fundamental role in the functioning of democracy. It fosters transparency, encourages public trust and participation, and promotes open discussion of public policy.

Regrettably, journalists are subject to violence and acts of intimidation across the world, and South Sudan is no exception. Members of the press have suffered through years of a deteriorating media environment, including censorship, intimidation, violence and even targeted assassinations. State institutions frequently interfered in editorial matters and called journalists in for questioning. The establishment of a new regulatory body, the South Sudan Media Authority, in late 2016, led to further restrictions on the activities of international journalists and tense relations with media houses.

A South Sudanese female journalist conducting an interview

The Canadian non-governmental organization Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), with support from Global Affairs Canada, is working to improve the media climate. Recognizing the potential of the Media Authority as a professional body capable of depoliticizing media issues, JHR engaged the Media Authority’s leadership to discuss how it could contribute to a stable, predictable and rights-based environment for media. The Embassy of Canada to South Sudan worked closely with JHR on this effort and engaged the Media Authority to support a dialogue with JHR and journalists.

JHR invited the Media Authority to its East Africa regional conference in November 2017, which exposed it to critical perspectives and best practices from other regional media regulators, journalists’ associations and media houses. The Media Authority subsequently formed a media development and advocacy consortium, bringing together seven key media stakeholders. This group shared ideas and concerns with the Media Authority, which began engaging regularly with other state institutions to urge them to leave matters of the media to the Media Authority. This has also had a practical effect, with the Media Authority stepping in several times to assert its authority over media matters when journalists have been summoned by other state institutions.

A senior official at the Media Authority has praised the benefits of its engagement with JHR, noting that this has helped the Media Authority develop its operational strategies with a better focus on working in collaboration with the media in South Sudan. “As a regulatory body, we need to have that strategy of how to address or to resolve conflicts or problems either between the media and the government or the government versus the media.”

South Sudanese journalists during a radio broadcast.

Building on this work, on April 24, 2018, JHR hosted a media forum in Juba, organized with the Embassy of Canada to South Sudan and the Association of Media Women in South Sudan, to address another major challenge in South Sudan’s media landscape: the understanding of media laws and the mandate of the Media Authority. With strong participation from media houses, academics, government officials and other stakeholders, the forum featured presentations by regional media advocacy organizations, journalists’ associations and legal experts, as well as panel discussions on how to report on sensitive issues responsibly while avoiding hate speech and incitement to violence.

Canada’s Ambassador Alan Hamson delivered the opening remarks, emphasizing the importance of media freedom as a vital part of democracy:

“A strong media sector is essential for developing a strong country. Freedom of expression and of the press, and strong media institutions, are essential for any society to identify issues and find solutions, to inform the public, to engage citizens in the future of their country, to help governments and institutions respond to the needs of ordinary people and to protect people’s human rights.”

Overall, the forum built on progress already made by JHR with the Media Authority and other stakeholders and helped to promote media freedoms, establish a mutual understanding of media laws and enhance common understanding among stakeholders of roles, responsibilities and rights.

Global Affairs Canada’s international development assistance in the media sector was recognized in particular for making the event possible.

Although there continue to be challenges in the relationships between government officials and media representatives, this project by Canada has helped build trust with one key government stakeholder to help it act constructively in favour of a predictable and rights-based media environment. Canada is proud to support the promotion of freedom of the press, the rule of law and inclusivity, and will stand by South Sudan in the goal of upholding human rights.

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