John Penn de Ngong has been threatened, harassed, attacked and kidnapped during his work on South Sudanese independence. Here he discusses the story which led him into exile in Kenya.
Sat in the comfortable surroundings of a hotel lobby in Nairobi, it is hard to imagine the series of events which has brought John Penn de Ngong to his current predicament in Kenya.
John Penn de Ngong is currently living in Nairobi
after being forced from South Sudan
A prominent South Sudanese journalist, activist and writer, Penn was forced into exile after receiving a number of threats against his life. He talks passionately about the harassment he has suffered at the hands of the South Sudanese government, and his frustration at watching a cause for which he fought turned into an instrument of oppression.
Following Penn’s story is no easy task. He has travelled extensively across the region, working for a large number of media outlets, espousing various causes and becoming embroiled in politics. He fought as a child soldier in his country, and the passion he holds for independence, for freedom and for promoting human rights has emerged from many years of witnessing and opposing severe oppression. And he is still only 38 years of age.
As well as his extensive writing and other activities, Penn runs an organisation called the United Scribes, Teachers and Artists of South Sudan (USTASS), which advocates for the rights of minority professions in the recently formed country.
His work with the group was the primary reason for him having to flee South Sudan.
“In one week I lost two colleagues,” he said, explaining that a fellow writer had been killed and another activist was kidnapped, with his whereabouts still unknown. USTASS has been labeled as a subversive group, and Penn has been identified as a threat to the peace and stability of South Sudan.
While living in hiding in Juba, Penn’s hotel room was ransacked. Fortunately he was out of the room at the time, but hard drives containing some 500GB worth of work and information were stolen from his room, and a message was left on his pillow. As well as a letter demanding that he stop his work a bag of rotting animal bones was also left on his bed.
He is convinced that the government’s National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) was behind the incident, and he became truly fearful for his life in South Sudan.
Penn arrived in Nairobi on January 31, 2013, having decided that “the threat to my life became too much – I could not bear it.” A campaign of text messages, emails and letters threatening his life and warning him about his future had forced him into a life in exile.
“I have to leave”
“I became a journalist as part of a process in my career, I chose a career of being a writer in the future and I dreamt of being a writer and publishing my own books,” he said, adding “so I said the only way to be a good writer is to be a journalist, so that made me join the Sudan Mirror in 2004 here in Nairobi.”
His work in the following years, which saw him moving between Nairobi, Kampala and Juba, resulted in him being attacked on a number of occasions and even kidnapped.
He also founded a number of newspapers and magazines, but financial issues led to his ventures collapsing. This caused him to focus on working for daily newspapers and USTASS, which resulted in the subsequent consternation from security forces.
“They told me that if I left the country they would easily find me, so I should not leave,” Penn explains, noting that the messages stated: “What we are telling you is that we will not kill you, we just want you to give up your campaign, your writing and all this nonsense.”
“I said no, I have to leave,” he added.
Penn referred to the upcoming election in 2015, and the fact that he and his organisation have already been identified as enemies of the government. Like other countries in the region, working as a journalist in South Sudan during election time is more than likely to be a dangerous and generally unrewarding experience.
Taking all this into consideration, Penn chose a life in exile and managed to escape Juba with the help of a former colleague, reaching Nairobi, without work, money or a place to stay.
A difficult dilemma
Penn is unsure as to the best way forward to ensure safety and security in the future. He is questioning whether relocation to a third country would be the preferable solution, and feels a sense of responsibility for the work he has been trying to carry out in South Sudan.
“I left big projects in South Sudan and just locked my office and came here,” he noted.
“There is a big group of people relying on me and they want me to carry on their cause, so I am just in a dilemma of whether to continue with the campaign for them here in exile, or to shut up and close everything to do with the campaign and go as a refugee elsewhere – I am still undecided,” he added.
“It’s a betrayal to them if I close all the 15 blogs online I am managing – if I close all these I will have locked them out,” he said, adding “this is why I am still trying to make up my mind.”
Bringing light and liberating minds
“Media freedom is good for development, in South Sudan we are just a new country and for this country to heal from the trauma of the war we need information, and this information must be free to everybody,” Penn told DCMF.
“With open media, development will come – without media being open we will not know what the government is doing, we will not participate in development because if we are not on air talking about peace and the rights of the people, then these communities will remain like they were under the old Sudan.”
“Media is good for my country – that is why I took up media,” he noted, adding “I know that information is part of the therapy for the country.”
Penn explained that there are many negative stereotypes affecting members of the media, as well as educators and artists in South Sudan. These misconceptions and derisory attitudes prompted him to found USTASS.
“We need a holistic change of our community through the media – for me media is development, media is for liberating minds.”
Penn also highlighted the role that the media can play in correcting misinformation and developing dialogue and understanding across tribal divides.
“You have seen the role of media in fighting tribalism in Kenya, those who are working at KTNor Nationare from different tribes and they have become brothers – they can even inter-marry and there is no political divide later on,” he said.
“This tribalism was because we were not informed,” noted the writer, arguing “the biggest group that should liberate Africa from this darkness of tribalism is media.”
While his commitment to media development and press freedom are obvious, the driving force behind Penn and his desire to change South Sudan is frustration and disappointment at the way things have turned out following independence.
An army General with whom Penn used to fight ended up turning on him, accusing him of being an enemy and a spy for foreign governments.
“It is utterly disappointing to see that the same government that was in the bush with me fighting for freedom from Bashir and the Khartoum government, has turned around now to silence us, to close newspapers and blogs and to shoot writers in the head,” he said.
This betrayal of trust has left Penn a man in exile, desperate to contribute towards the development of media and other areas of growth in the youngest country in the world.
But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Penn’s story is the fact that his is by no means an isolated example of the persecution facing journalists in South Sudan. He constantly refers to his colleagues who have been subjected to similar threats and attacks, as well as those who have ended up in prison, or worse.
As such, careful attention needs to be paid to the conditions in South Sudan which forced him, and large numbers of his colleagues into exile, and steps must be taken by the government to ensure that freedom of information and media freedom are firmly entrenched in this young country’s foundations.