Independent dissent being silenced in South Sudan | An interview with Victor Lowilla of SSLS

South Sudan Law Society SSLSVictor Lowilla, senior legal aid attorney at the South Sudan Law Society (SSLS), speaks to CIVICUS about the trajectory of civil society in South Sudan since independence and the growing restrictions on independent media and journalists in the country.

How would you describe the overall operating environment of civil society in South Sudan?

While the current legal framework governing civil society in South Sudan is not particularly restrictive, the government is taking an increasingly hostile approach to organizations which advocate on sensitive issues leading to a severe constriction of operational space for independent dissent. Civil society groups which report on contentious issues, deemed off-limits by the government, do so at the risk of reprisal. The National Security Intelligence, in its mission to insulate the government from criticism, is becoming increasingly vigilant and willing to arrest anyone who openly speaks out against the government.

Moreover, a large portion of national civil society groups in South Sudan suffer from severe capacity deficits. After the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, many leading activists joined the government thereby depleting the ranks of independent civil society of seasoned activists with decades of experience. Funding is another challenge for civil society in South Sudan. Without access to robust domestic revenue streams, civil society has had to rely primarily on international donors to fund their operations. However, this paradigm has created a situation wherein civil society organizations are forced to tailor their activities to the fluctuating priorities of donors. For example, organizations which are primarily set up for food security might start doing activities outside their remit such as legal aid because donors have prioritized augmenting access to justice.

In addition, it should be noted that on 17 May 2013 the National Legislative Assembly tabled a new "Voluntary and Non-governmental Humanitarian Organizations Bill" which would replace the 2003 Non-Governmental Organization Act, creating a new regulatory framework governing the work of national and international humanitarian groups operating in South Sudan. A coalition of national CSOs is currently analyzing the bill and will release a position paper on its compatibility with South Sudan's international and national human rights obligations.

Under South Sudan's 2011 Transitional Constitution, a Constitutional Review Commission was established with the aim of incorporating the views of the people into a permanent constitution. To what extent has national civil society been consulted in this process?

The commission's initial mandate came to an end earlier this year, but was subsequently renewed for another two years. Civil society has been given 6 seats on the 52 member commission board. However, the 6 members have been consigned to "part-time membership" and do not play an active role in the ongoing dialogue. While civil society has formed a resource team to synthesize and incorporate the views of the public with the aim of submitting a parallel draft version of the constitution, the government has yet to invite civil society to engage in the consultations or discuss the findings of the research.

Recently there have been several attacks against independent journalists and growing censorship of media outlets in South Sudan. Can you tell usabout the recent crackdown on independent media in the country?

The right to free speech is codified in the Transitional Constitution of the Republic of South Sudan, 2011. However, it increasingly appears that this right is only endowed to journalists who refrain from publicly disclosing information and reports critical of government policy. A number of journalists have recently been arrested and harassed for undertaking their legitimate work. Last year, for example, a journalist was arrested and placed in incommunicado detention following the publication of a piece detailing the marriage of President Salva Kiir's daughter. After concerted pressure from national and international civil society, the journalist was released. Towards the end of last year, a journalist who had written a number of articles critical of government policy, was murdered at his home after repeatedly being threatened. His perpetrators have never been brought to justice. At the start of 2013, a number of journalists have gone into exile due to relentless threats on their lives.

How can regional and international civil society groups offer support to independent journalists and civil society in South Sudan?

Regional and international civil society can help to mitigate the impact of the government's growing campaign to suppress independent journalism by providing security training to journalists on how to safely navigate increasingly hostile and repressive environments. In addition, international and regional civil society can look to encourage the South Sudanese government to relax the growing legislative and extra-legal restrictions on independent media and civil society. The South Sudanese government needs to recognize that an independent media and civil society are essential components of a strong, consolidated democracy.

About SSLS
The South Sudan Law Society (SSLS), founded in 1994, is a membership organization which advocates for the supremacy of the rule of law, good governance and respect for human rights through the provision of legal aid, research, human rights monitoring, legal education, lobbying and advocacy. In 2011, following South Sudanese independence, SSLS established seven branch offices throughout the country.