A draft bill for the press and publications in Sudan has sparked extensive debate between government authorities and the media sector, the latter having described the law as being more restrictive on freedom of expression and the press. Sudanese journalists hope to remove the limitations on press freedom that are threatened with the introduction of the new law.
The draft bill passed by the Sudanese cabinet on June 22nd introduces punitive measures against offending journalists, including suspension from writing and the revocation of their practice licence on a ruling from the Press and Publications Council. The law also enforces restrictions on online publishing, which has already been addressed in the Cyber Crime Act of 2014.
Rights groups and advocates for press freedom were quick to criticise the draft bill before it went to parliament for final approval.
The Sudanese Journalists' Network (an unregistered entity shadowing the Journalists Union, which is controlled by the ruling authority) said it strongly rejects the draft bill and would use all available means to oppose it, since its imposition would further restrict the freedom of the press in Sudan.
The outrage over Sudan's new press bill began nearly six months ago, forcing the cabinet to delay the decision on the bill because of protests by the pro-government Journalists Union and the Sudanese Journalists’ Network.
A member of the secretariat of the Sudanese Journalists' Network, Hassan Farouk, said they reject the idea of having a press law in principle, regardless of its provisions. He said, "Press laws are exclusively reserved for authoritarian regimes with the purpose of controlling the press." He described the bill as being restrictive and intimidating to journalists.
Farouk said the network intends to organise a sit-in protest against the bill and submit memos to the authorities demanding its withdrawal.
Sudan's print media faces huge restrictions and journalists are subject to harsh punitive measures under several laws, including the National Security Act of 2010, the Sudanese Criminal Code of 1991 and the Press and Publications Law of 2009.
Farouk said, "The withdrawal of the license suspension from writing are severe punishments aimed at silencing the voices critical of the authorities."
In the 1990s, the Sudanese print media faced pre-censorship, in which security personnel reviewed the editorial content and decided what should be published. Pre-censorship was abolished in 2005, but the security authorities reserved the right to punish newspapers by confiscating all print copies before distribution because of objectionable content.
In February 2015, the Sudanese security services broke the record for confiscations by seizing all printed copies of 14 political newspapers in one day and then continued to confiscate four of them for nine consecutive days. This confiscation entailed heavy financial losses on publishers, who are having to survive in a worsening economy amid declining distribution rates.
Parliament Assures Journalists Freedom of the Press to be Protected
Tahir Hassan Abboud vice-president of the media committee of the Sudanese parliament, said journalists should not worry and be assured that parliament will not pass a law that deprives the press of its freedoms. He said parliament supports press freedom, regulated by legislation to avoid chaos and threats to national security.
Abboud told 7Dnews that they had set up an action plan to review the bill, starting with a review workshop inclusive to media experts, lawyers and human rights experts.
Journalists' Union and Press and Publication Council are not worried
Mohamed Elfatih Ahmed, vice-president of the Sudanese Journalists Union, said journalists should not worry about the bill at this stage because it has not been finalised and parliament can accommodate their comments.
Ahmed told 7Dnews that a committee has been formed to reconcile the views of all parties before the approval of the bill by parliament. The committee is composed of representatives from the Attorney General’s office, the Ministry of Justice, the Journalists Union and the National Council for Press and Publications.
Ahmed said that the prime minister assured them of the government's willingness to achieve consensus within the law. He said that the punitive measures in the proposed law that would be enforced by the press and publications council are better that court rulings against journalists that would imply imprisonment and fines.
He also said the new bill is 90% similar to the press and publications law of 2009, which was approved by parliament with the participation of all the political parties.
The Secretary-General of the Sudan National Council for Press and Publications (a government entity), Abdel-Azim Awad, strongly defended the amendments to the Press Law, pointing out that changes in the work of the press and media had motivated the amendments.
Awad said in a statement that the proposed bill granted the freedom of the press in article 5, and the proposed punitive measures are normal. He added: "I do not see the justification for the hostility against the penalties proposed in the law. We think it is better that journalists get punished instead of suspending the newspapers."
Sudan is currently ranked 174 in the press freedom index, and is the eighth worst country in the world in relation to press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. Earlier this year, the organisation reported the arbitrary arrest and detention of 18 journalists, including foreign media correspondents, while covering an opposition protest.