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Defenders speaking out: “The fear is always there.”

The tough working conditions for journalists in South Sudan dramatically deteriorated after fighting broke out again in Juba on 7 July. In 2015, the country fell 15 places – the largest drop worldwide – in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. It now ranks 140 out of 180. The wave of violence that swept across Juba in July heightened tensions and threatened the capital’s fragile peace. Last month alone, two journalists were killed and two more were detained.

Journalists in South Sudan, by the simple act of sharing information, risk their lives to inform the public of grave human rights violations. DefendDefenders spoke to a South Sudanese journalist who fled the country after his newspaper was shut down, his house was ransacked, and his friend was killed. This is his story.

As a journalist, someone who is talking to both sides, I knew it was just a matter of time [before the tensions in Juba escalated]. For two months there had been tensions within the transitional government. One spokesperson told us that when you put chemicals together and they explode, it is obvious what will happen if you assemble them again. The circumstances that caused the 2013 fighting are still present today.

Unfortunately, I lived in an area that was targeted. My house is very near the home of the First Vice-President. It was a target, so mortars and helicopters were flying overhead. We could not stay. The fighting broke out on [Thursday] 7 July. On Sunday and Monday, the fighting continued. When we returned, we found our house ransacked, so there wasn’t much to hold on to.

On Tuesday, another editor working for my newspaper came to my house, to check if I was still there. He told me about the killing [of John Gatluak] the day before. I always want to be sure that what I am saying is the truth, so I went to the place where he was killed, and I saw his body lying there.

I first met John at the Association of Media Development in South Sudan general meeting earlier this year. I got to know him and we became friends. Seeing his body touched me. When there are killings and you don’t loose someone you know, you may have seen the bodies but there is still some kind of abstraction. But if it is someone you know – a friend – it becomes real.

I haven’t been arrested myself, but the intimidation is always there. Someone will come into the office and tell you “if you don’t stop, you don’t want to see what happens next.” A friend of mine was arrested on air, as he was hosting his show. Can you imagine? Another colleague of mine was beaten so badly he nearly died. So we drop it. We have learned self-censorship. If there is a story that touches the Director of the National Security Service (NSS), we don’t run it. If there is a story that touches the Chief of General Staff, we don’t run it.

The newspaper I worked for had a reputation for being critical and about four times the NSS confiscated our papers after we published a story. In February last year we were accused of printing false information and the paper was shut down until October 2015.

In August 2015 my editor-in-chief was appointed as Deputy Chairperson of the Information Commission. Previously he had been a Member of Parliament, and he still knew the President. The President signed a media bill into law [in 2014] guaranteeing access to information.

My chief editor was charged with the implementation of the law. But from the time he was appointed to when he resigned in June 2015, he had no office. He was incapacitated to do anything. So he said he could not continue drawing a government salary for nothing. Some officials must have seen his decision as an unacceptable act of defiance against them. They came to the newspaper again to check our registration, to see if we pay tax – so many things. The pressure was very high.

Those were the three reasons I fled. My house was ransacked and I lost everything. I don’t know if my media house will be allowed to keep working. I lost people I knew personally and I wasn’t sure if this was going to happen again. Running away was the only option for me.

I used the opportunity of the evacuation by the UPDF. It was not safe. We saw an SPLA [Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army] car that was burned. There were four bodies, one of them in uniform. They were decomposing and probably dead for about four days. The road to the border is about 185 kilometres. Normally, it takes you 2.5 hours. We started around 13:00 and arrived at 20:00.

I left Juba on Friday and arrived in Kampala on Saturday. I’m thinking of continuing my work here, but if Juba wants to target me it’s easy. Some time ago, I heard the story of a South Sudanese woman who was arrested in Nairobi and driven back South Sudan via Uganda. I think the threat shouldn’t stop me from continuing my life as normal. But the fear is always there.

Based on the interview with a South Sudanese journalist living in exile. Due to security concerns his identity has been withheld and the format of the interview has been edited.