South Sudan media crackdown hurting progress

Nairobi - Amid civil war and famine warnings, South Sudan's tough security forces have cracked down on journalists, suffocating debate on how to end the fighting, rights groups warned on Friday.

South Sudan's feared National Security Service (NSS) should "stop seizing and shutting down newspapers as well as harassing, intimidating, and unlawfully detaining journalists", Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said in a joint report.

"The government clampdown takes place at a time when South Sudan most needs independent voices to contribute to discussions about how to end the political crisis and internal armed conflict", said Amnesty researcher Elizabeth Ashamu Deng.

Thousands of people have been killed and over 1.5 million have fled more than seven months of fighting between government troops, mutinous soldiers and ragtag militia forces divided by tribe.

Aid agencies have warned of the likelihood of famine within weeks if fighting continues.

Creating a "growing atmosphere of fear", the rights groups said the government has banned journalists from interviewing opposition or rebel leaders, as well reporting on human rights violations, and controversial debates on the issue of federalism.

Several journalists have been detained by security forces, others have fled the country.

"If South Sudan hopes for a peaceful future, covering up crimes must not be allowed and freedom of expression must be protected, not attacked", Deng added.

The Almajhar Alsayasy newspaper has been ordered shut, while another paper, the weekly Juba Monitor, has had eight editions seized since the war began in December. The Citizen newspaper has also had copies seized.

"Journalists and commentators cannot do their work and report freely on the ongoing conflict without fear of retribution by state security forces", said HRW's Africa director Daniel Bekele.

Fighting broke out in December, sparked by a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his sacked deputy Riek Machar.

Civilians have been massacred, patients murdered in hospitals and churches, and entire towns including key oil-producing hubs have changed hands several times.