last time R saw his friend Peter Moi alive, they
talked about how he could no longer cover politics as a journalist. It was too
risky. I’m only reporting on business from now on, Moi told him.
Three days before, the
President of South Sudan Salva Kiir had
uttered his now infamous
statement on his way to peace talks in Addis Ababa: “If anybody
among [journalists] does not know that this country has killed people, we will
demonstrate it one day, one time. … Freedom of the press does not mean you work
against the country.”
For five years, R and Moi
worked beside each other covering the birth of their country, South Sudan. Moi
had agreed to stop by R’s work that night to pick up audio recorded at that
evening’s meeting of South Sudan’s parliament. But Moi told R he wouldn’t be
using the recording. Too political.
Moi would be killed soon after
exiting the radio station’s guarded compound.
Between 2009-2011, South Sudan
experienced a press freedom renaissance. The breakaway region was transitioning
to full nationhood, and according to journalists practicing at the time, it was
easy to talk to the powerful and regular people alike. None of the South
Sudanese journalists contacted for this story would allow their names to be
printed for fear of reprisals.
“Now if you want to get the
views of citizens,” says W*, a veteran South Sudanese journalist reached in
Juba, “they fear the media.” And for good reason. For regular people, speaking
to the press now means risking one’s life. This has made it all but impossible,
says W, to interview communities impacted by the current civil conflict.
The powerful in South Sudan,
adds W, have become more adept at bullying reporters into getting their faces
on the front page when announcing new policies, and restricting information
when it serves their purpose. The recent threats by Kiir come at a tense times
as the government attempts to craft a peace deal to stop the
violence that has consumed the country for the last 20 months.
R believes that Moi was
followed after leaving the radio station that night. It was little more than a
mile down the road, in an open field on the outskirts of town that Moi was shot
twice in the back. His body was found the next morning. His wallet still on
That morning, R received a
phone call and rushed to the crime scene where his friend’s body still lay. He
followed the ambulance to the hospital in the center of Juba, where a crowd of
around two dozen people, mainly representatives from the media and relatives of
the deceased, gathered around the entrance of the mortuary. Moi’s body was
wheeled out covered in purple fabric. The following day it was taken to his
home village for burial. He was 27 years old, not yet married, survived by his
“When we arrived, every media
outlet was there, including the head of the journalists’ union,” says Grant McDonald, a
Canadian journalist who through his work with journalists for Human Rights has
trained more than 200 South Sudanese journalists in the last two years.
“Journalists were talking fearfully,” he says, even as they interviewed family
members and each other.
It was outside the morgue that
the reporters decided to stage a media blackout.
McDonald says the sentiment was “make sure this is reported everywhere and make
sure they know how we feel.” For the next 24 hours, publishing was shut down in
the country as the journalists demanded the government move quickly to find the
killer. The government-run media outlets kept operating as if nothing had
For McDonald, Moi seems an odd
target. His recent work at The Corporate, a weekly business newspaper, was “nothing too controversial,” mostly
stories about new businesses coming to town and local entrepreneurs. According
to The Corporate’s publisher, the newspaper was not the target of threats.
It’s possible that Moi’s
murder and the timing of the President’s threats could be a coincidence. But
few of South Sudan’s embattled journalists are taking it that way. Moi’s death
brings the number of journalists killed this year to seven, most of whom
died in a single rebel attack on a convoy earlier that year. A couple more are
Local journalist Clement Lichio has been
missing for two weeks. He was, according to a colleague who was detained with
him before being released, arrested by state security agents. The driver of the
car he was in was later found dead. Lichio’s family is so sure of his death
that they have performed his funeral rights in absentia.
This fear has greatly impacted
how journalists do their work. R says his radio station used to have broadcasts
at 7 and 9 at night but now they pre-record the segments and leave the office
by 4 to get home before dark. He no longer wears anything that could identify
him as a journalist, removing the station’s logo from everywhere, including his
equipment. In fact, he has ditched his professional microphone to record
interviews on a recorder small enough to disappear up a sleeve. “The audio
quality is fine,” he says defensively.
But even appearing in public
is too much for some journalists. For W, a South Sudanese stringer for a
foreign press agency, the recent events have made him afraid to show his face
outside his house or car.
“My day to day work is now
mostly on the internet,” he says. “Instead of going into the field I do what I
can using my phone. It’s now a struggle to get information, to find the truth.”
W scrupulously records every phone conversation he has in order to cover his
tracks. He suspects that his phone is now bugged, possibly taking away his last
opportunity to report.
“If I had the capability, I
would try and leave the country, sincerely. Maybe my plan is today maybe
tomorrow. I am worried, this could be my time. It is very difficult. My wife is
expecting and I don’t know where I can run.”
Aaron is a freelance journalist based in New York covering cities,
culture and African politics. Follow him on Twitter at @aaronleaf.