Press freedom in a conflict-ridden country

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How do you promote freedom of expression and fight hate speech in a country that has been in conflict for years? NORCAP expert Mwatile Ndinoshiho works for a free and independent press, and the protection of journalists in South Sudan.

“Since I arrived in South Sudan, January 2016, there has been a change in media censorship. Earlier, journalists were tortured and media houses physically closed, but now there is more self-censorship. The press are being threated. Journalists and media owners are being told to watch what they publish or broadcast,” Ndinoshiho says.

According to the International Federation of Journalists, South Sudanese journalists are frequently harassed, intimidated, beaten or abducted, and sometimes killed. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks South Sudan as the fifth worst country in the world when it comes to holding the killers of journalists accountable for their crimes.

“The country is not safe, so journalists are not safe”, says Ndinoshiho.
Understanding the importance of information

For the past year, Mwatile Ndinoshiho has been deployed to UNESCO in South Sudan as a communication and information specialist. Much of her work is concentrated around the UN Plan of Action on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity.

South Sudan has legal protection for the freedom of expression and the media, and the constitution guarantees media freedom. However, defamation is seen as a criminal offense and within the legal framework there are limits to press freedom and freedom of expression.
Although restrictions decreased after the establishment of the South Sudan Media Authority in September 2016, there is still some control of media activity, both for national and international journalists.

The country’s economy is failing, and combined with the current conflict and dire humanitarian conditions, the government is not be able to fund the Media Authority or other similar institutions that help the public access information, participate in governance and demand accountability.

“Citizens, including journalists, need to understand that they have a right to information and how they can apply it. There is also a need for media donors and development partners to support institutions such as the Media Authority that deal with complaints, hearings and other media-related incidents, “Ndinoshiho says.

At a recent marking of World Press Freedom Day in Juba, organised by Mwatile Ndinoshiho and her UNESCO colleagues, these issues were discussed.

“Journalists and media play an important role in conflict and crises. They highlight the voices of people affected and communities that are rarely given attention. Neutral and independent reporting can help defuse tension, strengthen tolerance and dialogue and counter ideas and narratives that promote violent extremism,” Mwatile Ndinoshiho explains.

Combatting hate speech
In line with this, the NORCAP expert also helped organise a conference on how to fight hate speech. With the recent conference, Ndinoshiho says that UNESCO wanted to set the agenda for more activities to monitor hate speech, and work with the media and civil society organisations to mobilise public interest and capacity to promote safe online spaces and counter hate speech.

“Together with media and civil society organisations we decided to join forces to raise awareness in local communities about the dangers of hate speech,” Ndinoshiho explains.

But how do you make sure combatting hate speech does not turn into yet another tool for those who want to limit freedom of expression? At the World Press Freedom Day event, Ndinoshiho’s UNESCO colleague, Sardar Umar Alam, remarked: “There is a thin line between free speech and hate speech. Free speech encourages debate, whereas hate speech incites violence.”

“We use benchmarks set by the Ethical Journalism Network on what constitutes hate speech compared to free speech, and we believe media and information literacy will teach citizens to understand and exercise freedom of expression, “Ndinoshiho says.

Although the legal framework is in place, current practices and the media environment in South Sudan is still challenging. But Ndinoshiho says there is willingness to change the situation.

“The authorities, including the Media Authority and the Right to Access Information Commission, are participating in all our advocacy work and also intervening positively on resolving media incidents”, she acknowledges.

Positive development
Like other countries in conflict, it is a challenge to reconcile issues related to national security threats, free speech and quality journalism. But the NORCAP-expert is positive.

“Last year UNESCO established a Radio for Peace Network of community radio stations across the country. Through the air waves, they provide opportunities for dialogue on reconciliation and peaceful co-existence. The stations also provide internally displaced people with the information they need and I believe they will help spread information about the upcoming national dialogue”, Mwatile says.

She also coordinates the Safety and Security of Journalists working group, a sub-committee within the South Sudan Media Working Group. She strongly supports the review of existing journalists’ safety mechanisms, with the purpose of establishing a national mechanism to prevent violence against journalists, protect journalists in danger and prosecute perpetrators.

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