Easing of Press Curbs Mooted

Journalists hope press law reform may ease restrictions on coverage of issues such as Darfur and the ICC.

Easing of Press Curbs Mooted

Journalists hope press law reform may ease restrictions on coverage of issues such as Darfur and the ICC.

Wednesday, 28 January, 2009
Political parties and journalists’ representatives are proposing reforms to a law which gives President Omar al-Bashir the right to impose restrictions on the country’s media, amid concern over mounting censorship.

Journalists, in particular, want media legislation reformed so that control of a powerful body which enforces censorship is transferred from the president to the national assembly.

The independent media have been enraged by increasingly harsh publishing restrictions.

Tensions came to a head on November 17 when more than 70 Sudanese journalists marched on the parliament building in the capital Khartoum to protest the media curbs. Police detained 63 of the protesters, releasing them the same day. In protest, 11 Khartoum newspapers suspended publication for one day.

Journalists say the censorship, imposed by the country’s National Security Services, NSS, violates the 2005 peace deal which ended more than two decades of war between the north and the now semi-autonomous south.

Under the agreement, freedom of the press was guaranteed, but strict censorship has been imposed on selected newspapers since February 2008 when Sudan’s security agencies began a pre-publication content review of Khartoum’s titles.

In a November 14 statement, the media campaign group Article 19 said, “Security forces visit and censor newspapers every day before they go to print, by physically removing articles they deem problematic or taboo.

The group says censorship has been “largely centred on issues including the Darfur conflict and the turbulent political relationship with neighbouring Chad. Media houses not complying with the censors risk having their publications confiscated and destroyed after they have gone to print.

Significantly, on November 8, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, SPLM, the main party in the government of South Sudan, removed its officers from the press department of the NSS in protest against its activities, which they deemed “anti-constitutional”, said Article 19.

Murtada al-Ghali, editor of the Freedom Bells newspaper who was among those arrested in the November protest, said government censors visit his newspaper each evening, and are able to demand that he remove stories and advertisements.

“They are severely hampering freedom of expression. They are targeting newspapers to harm them financially by banning advertising. They’re trying to shut us down by indirect ways,” Al-Ghali said.

The Sudan government, he said, was “trying to control the independent newspapers. They can’t stand independent newspapers. We [support] the right of the people to know”.

The restrictions reportedly arose after journalists accused the Sudan government of supporting the Chadian rebels that attacked the Chad capital of Ndjamena in February 2008. Officials at the time accused those who made the allegations of working for foreign governments.

The clampdown on the press has included curbs on how a newspaper report on the activities of the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague.

The ICC has indicted two Sudanese in connection with the ethnic fighting in the country's western Darfur region and has indicated it may also indict rebels thought to be responsible for attacks on United Nations peacekeepers in the region.

This past year, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC chief prosecutor, asked that Al-Bashir be indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity in connection with the fighting in Darfur.

A decision on that request is expected to be announced by the court in the coming weeks. Should Al-Bashir be indicted, it is unclear if the government would allow newspapers and other media to report this.

Restrictions on Sudan’s press have been in place ever since the National Islamic Front gained power in 1989, with officials arguing that censorship was necessary for national security.

Officials insist that the current censorship regime is constitutional, arguing that it was imposed by Al-Bashir who was legally entitled to do so.

"The presidency agreed to restrict freedom of expression," said security director Salah Abdallah Gosh. “Censorship is legal and constitutional.”

But now it seems the authorities may be having a change of heart.

New press laws are now under consideration by the Sudanese parliament that could ease censorship. Draft proposals have been submitted by the ruling National Congress Party, NCP, the journalists union and the opposition grouping the National Democratic Alliance

The current press law created the powerful National Press Council, which has become the focus of proposed reforms. The drafts would either put the council under the control of the national assembly, or keep it under the presidency.

Khartoum journalist Faisal Mohammed Salih, expressing the views of many of his colleagues, said that the council cannot be independent if it’s left under the presidency. "The [current] seizure of newspapers and bans on publishing by the press council is not acceptable," Salih said.

Al-Ghali said he and other journalists were confident that the press restrictions would be lifted. The journalism community has “made good progress,” in the debate over reform, and the government informally has agreed to drop censorship in exchange for a new code of ethics, he said.

The government, he said, knows how powerful the news media can be, “They fear it because it is not in their hands.”

Despite their troubles, Al-Ghali said, the press will push on. “We are not done,” he said.

Ahmed Ilsheik is an IWPR-trained journalist in Khartoum. IWPR Africa Editor Peter Eichstaedt contributed to this report.
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