Leaders and stakeholders of war-torn South Sudan have agreed to an additional 100 days to form a transitional government. Originally, the leaders of the peace process had a deadline of November 12.
The delay buys them time to reach agreement on key outstanding issues like transitional security arrangements and deciding the number of states the country will have, and their boundaries.
Critical to the success of the pre-transitional period is whether leaders use the time to engage public debate around these issues and others including human rights concerns at both the national and state level. However, this cannot happen unless authorities respect a free press and free speech in general – something South Sudan constantly attacks.
Lack of civic and political space and a failure to master the capacity to resolve political differences via political discourse are among the root causes of South Sudan’s conflict. Since war broke out in December 2013, South Sudanese officials have intensified arbitrary arrests and political repression, including torture of detainees.
As a result, journalists, activists, political opposition members, and some of the public self-censor, staying silent on topics deemed controversial.
In August, Military Intelligence (MI) unlawfully detained at least four youth activists from Lakes state for reportedly criticizing the current MI director, the former governor of the state. One was in military detention for over three months without charge.
In early November, members of the Gogrial state intellectuals’ union were arrested and detained by the National Security Service in Juba, at the behest of Gogrial authorities for being critical of their state government.
On October 31, authorities revoked press credentials and expelled freelance journalist for the Associated Press, Sam Mednick, in response to an article she wrote. A French journalist, Bastein Renouill, on assignment with France24 was arrested and deported on November 4.
South Sudanese have a lot to reflect and discuss regarding the future they want. They have a right to know, to demand answers from, and criticize their leaders. A free and vigorous press is essential to keeping the public informed and holding politicians and the powerful to account.
Authorities should take advantage of their extra 100 days to engage in genuine, open public dialog on outstanding critical issues, such as legal and institutional reforms of the security sector and ensuring truth and justice for atrocities committed. They should also lift restrictions on media freedoms, and ensure those arrested for criticizing the government are freed and those responsible for abuses are held to account.