Saturday, May 4, 2013

The new press law: violations and restrictions or transformation and freedom?

Recently, Rishan Oshi, received a job offer from a newspaper in Khartoum.  The young journalist, whose last job was working as an editor for Al-Tayar before it was closed down by the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) for unknown reasons last summer, was very excited about getting back to work.
The negotiations with the newspaper were underway when the newspaper backtracked, one of the editors working there objected to hiring her claiming that Rishan is a NISS target.  He called her “trouble”.
“Last June, we received a phone-call from the NISS, telling us that Al-Tayar is suspended, we were told that they still don’t know the reasons,” Oshi told DCMF.
Al-Tayar’s staff still doesn’t know the reasons. After months of protesting and campaigning for their newspaper, they began looking for other job opportunities during the worst period for journalism in Sudan and for job opportunities in the journalism field.
Last year, the crackdown on the press in Sudan resulted in financial losses for newspapers in Sudan due to low advertisements and confiscations of entire issues of newspapers at printing houses, as well as an unstable work environment for journalists who are left unpaid for months.
Over fifteen journalists were stopped from writing directly by the NISS, while others such as Oshi are isolated until “readers forget their names and they are out of the market,” as she puts it.
A new press law – the worst in years?
Last December, the press woke up for another day of fighting to survive, to find the parliament debating a new press law.
“The press laws were proposed at a time when the country is going through a constitution-making process.  It makes sense to finalise the constitution before focusing on press laws,” said Faisal Al-Bagir, a journalist and a press freedom activist.
Al-Bagir, who coordinates the Sudanese Journalists for Human Rights network, believes that this press law is the worst since Sudan’s first press laws in 1930.
To be exact, this is the fifth press law in the last two decades.  However, from the outset, the 2013 press law had unknown parents, each side was claiming that it was not their baby.
Idris Al-Douma, the editor-in-chief of one of the best-selling independent newspapers in Sudan, Al-Jareedasaid that “the new regrettable laws are meant to shut down the mouths of journalists.”
Al-Douma knows about restrictions, his newspaper has been confiscated many times since it opened in 2010, and was suspended for more than 3 months in 2011 leading to heavy financial losses.
In the language of the NISS, confiscation means that an entire issue is seized from the printing house during the night, after it has been printed. Although the NISS calls a number of chief editors in the evening to revise the material published in the newspaper, and assists them in editing the newspaper, they sometimes confiscate the newspaper if the newspaper insists on publishing a specific article, or as retribution for publishing an article.
Even when there is freedom of expression, there is no freedom after expression.
“I was taken to court many times for my writings, my last trial was two months ago and I was declared innocent,” said Oshi.
New forms of censorship
If the NISS acts as a censor, the press laws will compete with the intelligence agency as a strong censor.
The new press laws, if passed, will legalise the closure of newspapers, the cancellation of the registration of a newspaper or a publishing house. They will impose financial penalties on the newspapers as well as the printing houses and also stop journalists and editors working for periods of time.
In the 2009 laws, a newspaper could be suspended legally for three days.  The new law stipulates that the period can last up to ten days, which will cause heavy financial losses for the newspapers.
“The 2009 laws were worst when they were first proposed,” recalls Abdel-Rahman Al-Amin, the editor-in-chief of the newly-founded Al-Qarar newspaper, adding “the government at the time was a national unity government and the opposition was better represented which helped the laws get reformed.”
Al-Qarar newspaper is an independent newspaper created by journalists who wanted to see a newspaper that is not controlled by businessmen.
“A big factor in the 2013 laws is that the printing house which was previously just a venue for printing the newspaper, becomes a target for closure or financial penalties, which could easily turn the printing house into another censor,” said Al-Amin.
Violations of press freedom?
Some articles from the 2013 press laws, explained Al-Bagir in a phone interview, were taken from the Ethiopian press laws, which are among the worst in the world.
Commenting on the new press laws, Mohy Al-Deen Titawy, the president of the Sudanese Journalist’s Union (SJU) told members of the press that the laws violate press freedom, expressing his union’s opposition to them.
Surprisingly, the new press laws sets to take journalists’ licenses from the SJU and pass them to the National Council for Press and Publications (NCPP), a council that monitors the press in the country and gives newspapers or magazines the license to print.
The NCPP, with its well-respected leadership, is seen by journalists as a governmental body as it is under the supervision of the presidency and the presidency appoints its secretary-general.
However, Al-Amin views this move as a positive one as it “controls the distribution of the press license which many journalists have, yet small number practice journalism.” This perspective is understandable as even the police officers at the press prosecutor’s office can get a press license after a number of years of working there.
Journalists in Sudan hope to see the judiciary play the sole role in persecuting journalists and newspaper.
“The Council, which is the body responsible for protecting journalists and newspaper is failing in this regard, it is failing press freedoms,” said Al-Amin whose newspaper staff work as volunteers, six months after the newspaper was launched.
The NISS, although it takes journalists and newspapers to court, does not always win the case.
The Sudanese Communist Party’s Mouthpiece, Al-Midan, for instance, won its case against NISS after a court battle.  However, it remains suspended for unknown reasons.
Hopes for political transformation
In the last week, the President of Sudan, Omar Al-Bashir called for the release of political detainees and for a more open dialogue with the opposition in an attempt to foster an inclusive political process.
With the elections coming up in less than two years and the president stating that he will not run for another term, there are good reasons for optimism in Sudan, and there are hopes that this political transformation will materialise into more freedoms, especially press freedoms.
However there are still fears. Ironically the political openness which experts think was triggered by a small-scale but nonetheless, sustained protest movement, bred dissent not only towards the government, but towards the NISS, an apparatus known for being ruthless.
“With calls to limit the powers and functions of NISS especially on the press, the state has to find another way to control the press,” said Al-Amin in an attempt to understand the timing of the press laws.
Releasing political detainees, advocating for a more comprehensive political and constitution-making process are seen in a positive light by journalists, but there are sincere hopes to free the press and free journalists from censorship in the near future.

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