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Storm Over Press Law

Journalists and opposition politicians calling for bill to be amended, saying it’s a blow to media freedom.
By Ahmed Ilsheik
A proposed press law that would formalise strict controls over the Sudanese news media has drawn criticism from local media and parliamentarians



Under the draft, journalists and news organisations would be licensed by the media regulator, the National Press Council, which would be given the power to revoke licenses, impose stiff fines and suspend news operations.



Murtada al-Ghali, editor-in chief of the Freedom Bells newspaper, described the draft law as the most “restrictive” media legislation to emerge in Sudan.



“The law insists… on punishment,” he said, “[and] it is aggressive punishment.”



The Sudanese Journalist Network, SJNet, says the draft law violates people’s right of free speech and is a body blow for press independence.



“Parliament should amend the draft press law to ensure that it protects freedom of speech,” said a statement from SJNet.



The proposed law also contravenes press guarantees contained in the new Sudanese constitution, which was adopted as part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, CPA, signed with South Sudan, said journalist Khalid Saad, a reporter for the El Sahafa newspaper.



“[Because of this] we in SJNet will struggle [against] the draft by all means,” said Saad.



While Sudan has about 30 newspapers, both in English and Arabic, only around eight are considered to be independent.



The Sudanese press has been subject to restrictions since the National Islamic Front gained power in 1989, with officials arguing that censorship was necessary for national security.



However, controls were tightened after February 2008, when some journalists accused Khartoum of supporting Chadian rebels that attacked the Chad capital, Ndjamena.



Media campaign group Article 19 said in a November 14 statement that “security forces visit and censor newspapers every day before they go to print, by physically removing articles they deem problematic or taboo”.



In November, more than 70 Sudanese journalists protested against these curbs imposed by the country’s security service. Police detained 63 protesters, releasing them the same day. In response, 11 Khartoum newspapers suspended publication for 24 hours.



This clampdown on the press has extended to reporting on the activities of the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague. The ICC has indicted two Sudanese – one cabinet minister and one militia commander – as well as President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity in connection with the fighting in Darfur.



The proposed new legislation was developed by Sudan’s ruling party, the National Congress Party, NCP, and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, SPLM, the dominant party in South Sudan.



While both parties signed the peace agreement, each supports a restrictive press law because it would allow them “to limit the other’s voice during the next election campaign”, insisted Saad. A general election is scheduled for next year, to be followed by an autonomy referendum for South Sudan in 2011.



SPLM leader and South Sudan vice president Riek Machar says the bill will result in “responsible articles and good governance”.



However, journalists say it is an excessively heavy-handed approach to media regulation.



Of particular concern is the composition and lack of independence of the National Press Council, which would have nearly complete control over Sudan’s press.



Under the draft, the council will consist of 21 members, with eight appointed by Al-Bashir and Vice-President Salva Kiir of South Sudan. An additional eight would be journalists (elected by the government-controlled journalists’ union), publishers and owners of printing presses.



“The press council should be an independent body and should [function] as a self-regulatory mechanism, accountable to parliament and not to the executive,” said Saad.



Another aspect of the draft law that worries some is that officials will not be obliged to release government information to the public, and the decision on whether to do so will be left to their discretion, said Al-Ghali.



Among other provisions, the proposed legislation would allow the imposition of up to 21,500 US dollars of fines for violations and give the press council the power to close newspapers for seven days at a time.



Closure for longer periods of time, up to two months, can only be ordered by a court, according to the proposed law. If a newspaper is closed repeatedly, however, its license can be revoked and its printing press confiscated, it says.



Parliamentary member Farouk Abu-Issa, head of the National Democratic Alliance,

who calls the bill “unjust, repressive and vague”, says that he and other independent deputies presented a “good democratic draft of [a] press law”, but this was ignored by parliament.



“The NCP and SPLM don't want any democratic press law, so they… neglect the draft which we prepared,” said Abu-Issa.



The proposed law, he said, fails to “address the issue of freedom of expression and the right of the public to information, which is included in the constitution”.



There are indications that the draft legislation will be modified, however.



“We drafted the law and we intend to amend it,” said Yasir Arman, head of SPLM parliamentary bloc.



Journalists hope that this is done soon.



“The environment for journalists will be the worst if the draft has been passed by parliament without amendment,” said Arif Sawi, a journalist with the Al Ahdath newspaper. “Seventy per cent of journalists reject the draft of the press law.”



Ahmed Ilsheik is an IWPR trainee in Khartoum.

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