South Sudanese authorities should conduct a swift and credible investigation into the recent abduction of journalist Emmanuel Woja, and ensure those responsible are held to account, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.
At about 9 a.m. on March 2, a man approached Woja, an editor and news anchor with the independent broadcaster Eye Radio, near the outlet’s office in Juba, the capital, greeted him by name, and then pulled out a pistol and ordered him to get into a waiting Toyota Harrier, according to a report by Eye Radio and Woja, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.
Woja complied and entered the vehicle, which held three other men, including one more with a pistol. The group blindfolded him, held him all day, interrogated him about his work, and accused him of supporting a rebel group operating in the southern Equatoria region and supporting a coalition of activists who have called for the resignation of South Sudan’s president, he said.
That night, the men drove Woja to a forested area in the outskirts of Juba, where he said he believed they planned to kill him, but a gunfight erupted between his captors and unidentified attackers, and he escaped on foot.
“South Sudanese journalist Emmanuel Woja is lucky to have survived a traumatic kidnapping which seems to have been retaliation for his work and critical opinions,” said CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo. “Authorities should conduct a credible investigation into this abduction and ensure that all the perpetrators are held to account. South Sudan’s government needs to deliver justice for Woja and send a strong message that authorities prioritize the safety of journalists.”
Woja told CPJ that he could not identify any of his captors. He said they first drove him around for about 40 minutes, and then switched him to another vehicle that drove while playing a siren. Woja’s captors moved him to two different buildings, and in the latter interrogated him without the blindfold.
During that interrogation, a man told Woja that he had collected extensive information about him, including on his personal life and work. That man accused Woja of working at an anti-government media outlet, saying that Woja was one of three “stubborn” journalists at the station.
The man also accused Woja of supporting the National Salvation Front, an armed group fighting the South Sudanese government in the Equatoria region, supporting the Peoples’ Coalition for Civil Action, a group of activists that has called for the resignation of President Salva Kiir, and writing opinions that were against the government on social media, without citing specific posts.
Woja told CPJ he denied supporting any rebels and said that he had a right to express his opinions on social media. Partway through the interrogation, the man forced Woja to drink an unidentified substance that Woja said smelled of alcohol. Woja said he then became disoriented, and that the interrogator continued to level the same accusations against him. Woja said he was not sure how he responded after ingesting the liquid.
He told CPJ that the men held him in that room until the evening, when they drove him to the forested area on the Juba outskirts.
“That walk into the bush—I think these people wanted to kill me,” he said. “I really thought they would kill me.”
The men made him walk for several minutes while wearing the blindfold, and then he heard gunshots and heard his abductors return fire at someone. He told CPJ that he believed his captors ran for cover and, in the confusion, he was left by himself and was able to run away.
After fleeing, Woja realized he was in was Rajaf West, about nine miles outside of Juba; he walked back into the city and filed a complaint at a police station in Juba’s Lologo area, he said.
He told CPJ that he stayed at a local hospital overnight, where doctors told him that they could not immediately identify the substance he had ingested. In a Facebook post on March 10, Woja said that further tests indicated that he had suffered damage to his stomach and esophagus due to ingestion of methanol, a toxic alcohol.
Eye Radio is an independent media outlet that has previously attracted the ire of authorities; in 2016, authorities forced the station to cease broadcasting, as CPJ reported at the time. Last month, an Eye Radio reporter was among a group of eight journalists briefly detained by intelligence officers in Juba.
CPJ’s review of Woja’s social media pages showed that most of his recent posts were personal, not journalistic. On Facebook, where he has about 1,300 followers, he published his personal opinions on the state’s alleged failure to stem crime, corruption, and violence in parts of the country, and the government’s handling of a 2018 peace agreement.
On Twitter, where he has 523 followers, Woja published posts that called for the disbandment of South Sudan’s statutory media regulator, the Media Authority, and criticized its response to the recent arrests of journalists. In January, the journalist’s tweets included criticism of governance in South Sudan, calling it the “most corrupt country in the world.”
When CPJ contacted South Sudan police spokesperson Daniel Justine for comment via messaging app on March 9, he said he was traveling and referred CPJ to his deputy, James Dak. CPJ called Dak on March 9 and 10 for comment, but the calls either did not connect or rung without an answer. CPJ missed a call from Dak on March 10, and he did not answer subsequent calls on March 11 or respond to a text message requesting comment.
In a phone call with CPJ, Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth said he was not aware of Woja’s case, and referred CPJ to the Media Authority for comment. CPJ called Media Authority Managing Director Elijah Alier, but he declined to comment, saying he was not familiar with CPJ and he could not speak to “strangers.”