The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called on South Sudanese authorities to immediately release journalists Zechariah Makuach Maror and Jackson Ochaya and halt all acts of intimidation against the press.The CPJ said in a statement on Thursday that on September 1, Ochaya, a reporter with the privately owned No. 1 Citizen newspaper, went missing and was later confirmed to be held at South Sudan’s National Security Service headquarters, according to media reports.
On September 14, Maror, a freelance journalist, was sentenced by a Juba county court to one year in prison and a fine of 5,000 South Sudanese pounds ($38) after being convicted of criminal defamation, according to news reports, court documents reviewed by CPJ, and the journalist’s brother, Saad Z. Maror, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.
“South Sudan has one of the most hostile environments in the world for the press, and the continued arrest and harassment of journalists indicates that authorities are not committed to changing these conditions,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator. “Zechariah Makuach Maror should not be behind bars, and the detention of Jackson Ochaya is yet another example of authorities’ willingness to spread fear instead of ensuring journalists’ safety.”
In an August 25 report for No. 1 Citizen, Ochaya included a comment from a spokesperson of the National Salvation Front, a militant group fighting South Sudan’s government, according to media reports and an individual with knowledge of the arrest, who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. The report was titled, “Army Accuse NAS of Illegal Gold Mining, NAS Denies,” according to a copy of the paper’s front page reviewed by CPJ.
On August 31, authorities summoned Ochaya and No. 1 Citizen’s management over that report, and released them the same day, according to those reports. Ochaya went missing the following day after receiving a call to meet his uncle, according to those reports.
On September 9, No.1 Citizen published a statement asserting that Ochaya was not arrested for a “journalistic offense,” but in connection with a “personal matter,” according to a copy of the statement published in local news reports.
Ochaya is detained at the National Security Service headquarters, and no charges have been filed in his case and no court dates set, according to two people with knowledge of his case who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
On September 8, David Mono Danga, managing editor of the privately owned The Insider South Sudan news website and a reporter with the U.S.-Congress funded broadcaster Voice of America, was summoned by the country’s media regulator, where an official advised him not to report on Ochaya’s arrest because it allegedly was not connected to his journalism, Danga told CPJ via messaging app.
Danga said he suspects that the summons may have been partly in response to his earlier advocacy for Ochaya in a WhatsApp group of South Sudanese journalists that he believes also included members of the media authority.
“An attack on one journalist is an attack on all of us…We have to watch each other’s back,” Danga wrote in a message to the group, which CPJ reviewed.
Separately, police arrested Maror on April 18, 2020, and held him for three days following a defamation complaint filed by Salvatore Garang Mabiordit Wol, then South Sudan’s finance minister and the subject of criticism in Maror’s reporting, according to the journalist’s brother, court documents reviewed by CPJ, and Kuel Maluil Jok, chairman of local outlet Agamlong’s board, who spoke to CPJ over the phone.
Maror contributed freelance reporting to various privately owned newspapers in South Sudan, including Agamlong, The Dawn, and Juba Monitor, according to Jok and Saad Z. Maror. Maror also published criticism of South Sudan’s government on his Facebook page, which has over 700 followers.
Maror was free from April until September 14, when a Juba court issued its ruling and ordered him to be held in the city’s central prison, according to his brother.
During his trial in May, Maror’s lawyer denied the allegations against the journalist and argued that such cases should be handled under the country’s media law, not its penal code, according to the journalist’s brother, news reports, and court documents reviewed by CPJ.
Garang was fired from his position as finance minister on September 16, with the country’s president citing ongoing economic challenges and corruption, according to news reports. CPJ called Garang for comment but the call did not connect.
Saad Z. Maror told CPJ that his brother had a cough and pains in his back, stomach, and chest, which worsened in detention, but he had received treatment at a clinic and tested negative for COVID-19.
CPJ called Elijah Alier, the chairperson of South Sudan’s media authority, and Sapana Abuyi, the authority’s director general for information and media compliance, but the calls did not go through. CPJ also called Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth, who responds on behalf of the National Security Service for comment, but the call did not connect.