The pressure to sign a civil-war ending peace agreement may be getting to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir. On Sunday, the embattled leader threatened to kill journalists reporting “against the country.”
“If anybody among [journalists] does not know that this country has killed people, we will demonstrate it one day, one time. … Freedom of the press does not mean you work against the country,” Kiir ironically told a group of journalists while addressing the issue of press freedom.
South Sudan is currently embroiled in a bloody civil war and Kiir is under increasing pressure from local and international actors to sign a peace agreement. The country of 12 million people gained independence from Sudan four years ago but it didn’t take long before internal conflicts consumed the world’s youngest nation. Tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions have fled their homes in a war that will be two years old in December.
The government’s troops were accused by the UN in June of “new levels of brutality,” including raping and immolating young women and girls.
“According to the testimony of 115 victims and eyewitnesses from the Unity state counties of Rubkona, Guit, Koch, Leer and Mayom, SPLA fighters also abducted and sexually abused numerous women and girls, some of whom were reportedly burnt alive in their dwellings,” the UN reported. Rebel forces led by former Vice President Riek Machar have also been accused of killing civilians in cold blood and attacking places of worship.
Kiir recently met with Machar in Ethiopia for peace talks brokered by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an African trade bloc made up of eight countries. Should the two parties fail to reach an agreement, South Sudan will be subjected to international sanctions.
Kiir refused to sign a peace agreement on Monday and instead asked for 15 days to consider it. His opponent Machar did sign, however, compounding the pressure on Kiir to find a solution to the crisis. Meanwhile, Kiir still has to balance the demands of his country’s hardliners who oppose conceding to Machar’s rebels. To date, seven ceasefires have gone unheeded.
“President Salva Kiir is under immense pressure, both international and local, to sign the peace agreement after a long, protracted process whereupon repeated ceasefire agreements have been dishonored by both warring parties,” Tom Rhodes, the Committee to Protect Journalist’s East Africa Representative, told ThinkProgress. “Local journalists suspect Kiir has targeted the press for its ongoing efforts urging a peaceful solution — among other issues such as exposing government corruption and internal rifts within the ruling party.”
This year alone has seen the murder of five journalists in South Sudan, according to a CPJ report. All five were ambushed and brutally murdered by heavily armed men in the same incident. Other press agencies have been targeted and closed down by local authorities. Kiir’s latest comments could pave the way for more attacks against the country’s press corps.
“While this is the first time, to my knowledge, the president has made such comments it sets a dangerous precedent, ostensibly providing a green card to those in security and other government departments to target, even kill, journalists who speak out against an increasingly marginalized, unpopular government,” said Rhodes.