South Sudan deports AP journalist, agency says it is over his reporting

NAIROBI (Reuters) - South Sudan has deported a journalist working for the international Associated Press news agency, and the reporter said on Wednesday that it was because his reporting was critical of the government. Presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny said he was not aware of such a deportation and could not comment. Journalists in South Sudan have often complained of harassment by the authorities during the civil conflict. In 2015, five journalists were killed in South Sudan, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. "Yesterday I was arrested and deported by members of South Sudan's National Security Service. The officers did not officially present me with a reason for my arrest and deportation, but repeatedly said that my reporting was too critical of the government. This is a violation of press freedom," Justin Lynch said on his Twitter account. "As an international journalist, it is an unfortunate reality that I am privileged compared to my brave South Sudanese colleagues, who are frequently the victim of intimidation or even death." South Sudan, which won independence in 2011, plunged into civil conflict in December 2013 after a long running political feud between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, who are from different ethnic groups. Much of the fighting ran along ethnic lines. A peace deal was signed in 2015 but proved shaky from the outset. Weeks after Machar flew back to Juba this year to return to his former post, fighting again erupted in July. Machar has since left the country and been replaced. Associated Press defended Lynch's reporting from the country. "Any move to suppress legitimate journalism and truthful reporting shedding light on humanitarian crimes is wrong and should be condemned. We hope that the government of South Sudan will reconsider its actions," it quoted Ian Phillips, its vice president for international news, as saying in a story about Lynch's deportation. In November, security officials temporarily shut down Eye Radio in Juba, a popular radio station set up with U.S. backing, without giving a reason. In September, the authorities shut the Nation Mirror newspaper without giving a reason, although it followed coverage of a report by a U.S.-based group alleging misuse of state funds by the nation's leaders. It remains closed. In July, authorities detained a newspaper editor for writing articles that criticized the country's leaders over a flare-up in violence that month. Another newspaper, the Juba Monitor, has been closed temporarily on several occasions. Last week, a senior official at the U.N. commission of human rights said that ethnic cleansing was taking place in some areas of South Sudan and the stage was set for a repeat of a genocide like the one that happened in Rwanda. (Writing by George Obulutsa; editing by Ralph Boulton)