FEATURE: Free press euphoria fading fast in South Sudan

JUBA Tue Jan 31, 2012 7:44pm IST

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JUBA (Reuters) - Dengdit Ayok's dream of a free press in Africa's newest nation dissolved when he was arrested and beaten up after writing about the wedding of South Sudanese President Salva Kiir's daughter.

In an article published in October entitled "Let me say so", the reporter criticized Kiir for allowing his daughter to marry an Ethiopian, calling it a shock to the nation.

"Security forces came to our office to detain my editor and then me. I was beaten upon arrival (in prison) and held for two weeks without charge," Dengdit said, sitting in his small office on the outskirts of the capital Juba.

Since then, authorities have suspended his new English-language newspaper Destiny, without giving any indication of when it might be allowed to reopen.

"Journalism is a profession that gives sleepless nights because you can expect arbitrary arrest at any time," Michael Koma, editor-in-chief of the independent Juba Post, wrote in a Christmas column entitled "Still long trek to freedom."

South Sudan became independent last July under a 2005 peace deal and 2011 referendum that aimed to resolve the civil war that started in 1983 by splitting Sudan into two.

Journalists had hoped independence would bring an end to the publishing curbs, closures and arbitrary imprisonment imposed by the northern government in Khartoum. Sudan is considered one of the worst places in the world to be a journalist, ranked 170 out of 179 in the 2011 global press freedom index.

Early signals from Juba have not been good, however.

"Unfortunately there are worrying signs of restrictions and arbitrary arrests," said Tom Rhodes, East Africa consultant at the Committee to Protect Journalists. "It is sad that the government denies there is a problem."

Reporters say there is no clear mechanism for censorship or monitoring but the very lack of a media law allows security forces to make summary arrests on behalf of ministers upset by an article.

Many of the former guerillas who make up much of Salva Kiir's cabinet harbour a mistrust of independent media.

"Some arrests are made because of emotional acts of the leaders. They have no legal grounds. What they normally do is throw you (in jail) to assuage their anger, then you are released. No court, nothing," said Nhial Bol, editor-in-chief of The Citizen, another independent daily in Juba.

"Corruption is inherited. Most of our leaders are used to impunity," he said. "Being a commander, nobody checks you."

MEDIA BILL IN THE WORKS

South Sudan's fledgling government has found it hard going trying to set up state bodies and make laws in one of the most underdeveloped and conflict-ridden countries in the world.

Thousands have been killed by rebel and tribal violence, the new nation has few roads outside Juba and the economy relies entirely on oil revenues, currently non-existent as the country shuts down oil output until it can resolve with Khartoum how to disentangle its industries, borders and debt.

A media bill has been in the works for years but is still pending final government ratification.

"There is no legal clarity for journalists. Authorities still use the northern security laws," said Dengdit.

Aside from security harassment, the media face other daunting practical problems. Most regions are inaccessible by road and telecommunications are sparse. Newspapers reach the rest of the country by plane from Juba, sometimes a day or two late.

The Citizen is located in a warehouse complex housing the country's only printing press. Bol's small office is a far cry from spacious government offices brimming with laptops and new air-conditioning units.

Most independent newspapers have circulation of only a few thousand copies, tiny staff and little advertising. Some papers have even had to get printed in Khartoum as The Citizen's printer is facing technical problems.

The new newspapers -- which include Destiny's Arabic sister Al-Masir and the rival Mustaqbal (Future) -- are determined to struggle on. They are at least able to tackle subjects long banned by Khartoum such as government neglect of the Darfur region, scene of an almost decade-long insurgency during which 300,000 people have been killed, according to U.N. figures.

It is when reporters try to address problems closer to home, such as official corruption, that they encounter silence and sometimes intimidation.

Government spokesman Barnaba Marial Benjamin said the justice ministry was working on a media bill to guarantee press freedom.

"There is absolute freedom of the press - no restrictions," he said, adding that Destiny would be able to resume work once it had submitted the necessary papers required of newspapers.

But Bol said the situation would not be improved until the security forces understood the role of the media in a democratic society.

"We have stopped allowing our reporters to move around with cameras because of the security people," he said. "We stopped going to other sensitive places like the president's office unless they have called us."

While Destiny remains closed, Dengdit is writing for al-Masir, located in the same rundown building.

The battle for press freedom has just begun, he said.

"We demand from the government the necessary rights to do our job," he said.

(Reporting by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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