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Freedom of expression essential for peace in South Sudan– UN report

Restrictions on freedom of expression in South Sudan are having a “chilling effect” and “further shrinking the space for debate and dissent” in the conflict-affected country, according to a new UN report.

The report finds that genuine reconciliation and lasting peace will only be achieved if the people of the east African nation are free and safe to express their opinions.

“It is vital that the voices of all the people of South Sudan are heard so that genuine, inclusive and durable peace can be achieved,” said the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Mission in South Sudan, David Shearer. “All parties to the conflict must respect people’s right to freedom of expression regardless of their ethnicity, beliefs or political views.”

Co-authored by UNMISS and the UN Human Rights Office, the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression in South Sudan identifies 60 verified incidents which violate the legitimate right to freedom of expression of 102 victims, including 17 women, in the period from July 2016 to December 2017.

Incidents include the killing of two people, the arbitrary arrest and detention of 58 others, 16 people dismissed from their jobs, the closure or suspension of three media houses, censorship of newspaper articles, and the blocking of websites. Those targeted were seen to be critical of the Government, tarnishing the country’s reputation, or dealing with issues deemed sensitive.

Journalists are often not free to cover stories in South Sudan, particularly in relation to the conflict that has raged across the country for almost five years. They regularly experience censorship, harassment, and threats to their life.

“This is why it’s important, first of all, to have the ceasefire because when you are in a situation of insecurity, when people are fighting on a daily basis, nobody will be able to freely share their views, including journalists who will be afraid to raise questions or publish their stories,” said UNMISS Human Rights Director, Eugene Nindorera. 

The report found that Government security forces were responsible for two-thirds of the verified cases. It stated that the National Security Service’s broad powers of surveillance, arrest and detention, including the embedding of officers in some newspaper printing houses, had led to a growing climate of self-censorship.

There are also ongoing incidents of hate speech as well as examples of allegations of hate speech being used as an excuse to censor free speech.

“Unfortunately hate speech is a reality in South Sudan. Inflammatory language continues to target individuals and communities based on their ethnicity, perceived beliefs or political views,” said Eugene Nindorera. “But Government institutions and actors have also often invoked hate speech as the basis for imposing restrictions such as censorship of newspaper articles critical of the Government that did not appear to meet the threshold of incitement to violence, hostility or discrimination.”

The report acknowledges efforts by the Government, civil society, and other stakeholders to promote an inclusive and safe environment for freedom of expression and democratic dialogue, including the release of political activists and journalists from prolonged and arbitrary detention.

After five years of ongoing conflict in South Sudan, reconciliation and peace processes are underway internally and locally. Given the importance of these initiatives, it is vital that civil society actors, journalists and others can operate freely.

“We accept that these are extraordinary circumstances in South Sudan but, at the same time, if we are looking to foster peace and the ability for people to be involved in a free and democratic society then freedom of expression must be at the cornerstone of that,” said David Shearer.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said that South Sudan’s conflict, with widespread human rights violations and abuses committed by all parties, had inflicted untold suffering on millions.

“Freedom of opinion and expression are not luxuries but essential to bring about peace and development, and to build a resilient and participative society,” he said.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including:


Amending legislation to decriminalize defamation and ensure that powers given to security forces do not infringe on the legitimate right to freedom of expression; Ensuring freedom of expression violations are promptly investigated and prosecuted; Strengthening mechanisms to combat hate speech; Supporting the training of journalists and state agencies; Ensuring the Media Authority is fully operational, independent and adequately resourced.

Link to the Report> http://bit.ly/2opuxcG