South Sudan’s NSS funded a campaign of surveillance, intimidation, and violence against journalists

This investigation is part of the Justice for Journalists Foundation Investigative Grant Programme and was originally published by The Sentry. 

A new investigative report by The Sentry exposes how South Sudan’s National Security Service (NSS), a highly militarized agency operating under the supervision of President Salva Kiir, has cemented control over the country by extending business operations across major sectors and protecting those commercial interests through surveillance, repression, and extreme brutality.

The report, “Undercover Activities: Inside the National Security Service’s Profitable Playbook,” details how the NSS has infiltrated almost every aspect of life in South Sudan by employing a two-pronged strategy of state capture and repression.

Corporate records reviewed by The Sentry reveal a vast network of companies with NSS shareholders across key sectors ranging from media to natural resources.

John Prendergast, Co-Founder of The Sentry, said: “South Sudan is burdened by a ruthless, secretive, and well-funded security service that is willing to engage in state capture, corruption, and repression to the detriment of the South Sudanese people. The international community must step up to ensure that the National Security Service’s ability to both profit from and fund their gross human rights violations is restricted.”

Laleh Ahmad, Researcher at The Sentry, said: “The National Security Service of South Sudan engages in horrific human rights abuses and censorship and does so with impunity. Our investigation revealed that the NSS operates far beyond its constitutional mandate and goes largely unchecked, showing a blatant disregard for South Sudanese law and international human rights standards.” 

The NSS has unleashed a campaign of surveillance, intimidation, and horrific violence against civilians, activists, and journalists, with some who dare to speak out being illegally detained or permanently silenced. The NSS suppresses freedom of speech, in part, according to the report, by controlling its own newspaper through a series of front companies and shutting down outlets that print unfavorable stories.

Maria Ordzhonikidze, Director of Justice for Journalists Foundation, said: “We are proud to have provided support for this comprehensive investigation by The Sentry. The scale of abuse and intimidation of the independent media in South Sudan is truly horrific, while the harassment methods used by the various NSS agents against free speech are an incremental feature of the totalitarian regime. JFJ condemns the continued attacks against both local and international independent media workers in this country and remains committed to dedicate its resources for investigation of crimes against journalists.”

Today, South Sudan ranks 128 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. In interviews with The Sentry, several South Sudanese in civil society organizations and in the media sector expressed concern that they might be targeted by the NSS if they spoke openly about corruption or other government issues.

The Sentry’s investigation found that South Sudan’s oil, finance, and media sectors particularly suffer from NSS involvement, both in terms of economic capture and repression. The commercial activities of the NSS inside and outside the country provide pressure points vulnerable to action by international governments and organizations to curb the agency’s abuses and hold its officers accountable.

Dr. Charles Cater, Deputy Director of Illicit Finance Policy at The Sentry, said: “South Sudan’s National Security Service has exploited the state through an array of shadowy profiteering and extreme human rights violations. If left unchecked, this nefarious combination of capital and coercion will continue to undermine efforts for peace and development in South Sudan.”   

Key recommendations from the report:
(Complete list of recommendations included in the full report)

  • The government of South Sudan should immediately close all NSS detention centers and ensure that the NSS releases all detainees who have not been charged with a crime or given a fair trial. There should be an immediate, transparent, and impartial investigation into all allegations of NSS misconduct, including allegations of torture and sexual violence. The government should ensure that those NSS officials implicated in such crimes are appropriately prosecuted.
  • The United States, United Kingdom, European Union, Canada, and Australia should urgently investigate and, if appropriate, impose coordinated and targeted network sanctions on the individuals and entities described in this report, particularly the NSS-owned or -controlled commercial enterprises, as well as Akol Koor Kuc, Jalpan Obyce, Akot Lual Arech, and their enablers and support networks, pursuant to their Global Magnitsky-style or South Sudan-specific sanctions authorities.
  • Financial institutions should take measures to identify accounts held or beneficially owned by members of the NSS, other senior South Sudanese politically exposed persons (PEPs), and the 125 companies revealed by The Sentry to have NSS shareholders. They should carry out a comprehensive assessment to identify their broader international networks and determine the measures needed to mitigate the risks involved in such accounts and customer relationships. Financial institutions should also undertake enhanced screening, ongoing monitoring, and transaction reviews to identify, investigate, and report potentially suspicious financial activity related to South Sudan, especially with respect to international networks profiting from such activity.

Read the full report here.