Honoring the Courage of Journalists on World Press Freedom Day

A Statement by Chargé d’Affaires David Renz, U.S. Embassy, Juba, South Sudan

Today is World Press Freedom Day, commemorated annually since 1993.  May 3 is an occasion for all sectors of society – media representatives, civil society leaders, government officials, security personnel, academicians, and others – to discuss the state of press freedom, protection of journalists, and citizens’ rights to unbiased, accurate information.  World Press Freedom Day offers a valuable opportunity to reflect on the importance of the freedom of the press in South Sudan.  We celebrate the courage of journalists and remember those who have been harassed, intimidated, detained, kidnapped, tortured, or killed for simply doing their jobs.

South Sudan is at the crossroads of a critical transition in the implementation of the 2018 Revitalized Peace Agreement.  There is much that needs to be done in the remaining months of the transition period to pave the way for the elections the parties committed to in the revitalized peace agreement.  Freedom of the press is guaranteed by Article 24 of the Transitional Constitution of South Sudan 2011.  Allowing the press to operate unimpeded so it can report the news truthfully, accurately, and transparently is central to achieving a fair, free, credible, and democratic election, as President Kiir has called for and the South Sudanese people deserve.

According to Reporters Without Borders, South Sudan ranked 139 out of 180 countries on the press freedom index in 2021, dropping one place from its ranking in 2020.  I note the United States ranked 44 on the same list, which shows that America also has room to improve.  At this critical point in South Sudan’s history, I urge the Media Authority to redouble its efforts to ensure journalists can perform their responsibilities in a safe, protected environment.  I urge all sectors of society to support the nation’s media organizations in their struggles against censorship, intimidation, unlawful arrests, and extralegal suspension of independent radio stations.

This year’s World Press Freedom Day theme is “Journalism under Digital Siege.”  This theme underscores the increasing role of technology, which can be used not only to disseminate information more quickly and farther than ever before but also for surveillance and for spreading dis- and misinformation.  Repressive governments and heavy-handed security forces are utilizing the most modern techniques and equipment to intrude into the privacy of ordinary citizens and journalists to gain access to their personal information.  This allows censors to gather information before it is even reported and enables authorities to track journalists.  Surveillance in the digital realm constitutes a violation of privacy.  Even more concerning, these repressive measures threaten the independence of the media.

The importance of media freedom cannot be overemphasized.   It is the lifeblood that keeps democracies operating vibrantly.  Government should play their part by guaranteeing free access to information and not interfering with journalists’ reporting.  Equally, journalists should apply the highest code of conduct, ethics, and professionalism in their investigating and reporting.

At a time when the truth is increasingly under attack, the need for accurate, fact-based reporting, open public conversation, and accountability has never been greater.  Journalists uncover the truth, shine the spotlight on abuses of power, and promote transparency from those in authority.  The ability of journalists to gather and research facts and report them is vital for facilitating the free flow of information and ideas that enable individuals to hold their governments accountable.  Journalists are indispensable to the functioning of democracy, here in South Sudan and worldwide.  Today we join South Sudan and free nations around the world as we recommit to protect and promote the freedom of the press.