7 September 2011

Governments not delivering on promises of media freedom

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) welcomed President Omar al-Bashir's promise to free all jailed journalists detained in Sudan - but are wondering if he will actually deliver. Meanwhile, two months after independence, the media environment in South Sudan is undeveloped and ill-equipped, says ARTICLE 19.

Bashir's announcement was made on 27 August at a dinner with local journalists who had requested pardons for their colleagues to coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It was followed the next day by the release of Jafaar al-Subki, a reporter for the private daily "Al-Sahafa", who had been held incommunicado since November 2010, reports CPJ.

No official pardon has been made by the government, leaving unclear which journalists might be freed and which would remain in prison.

At least seven others are still being detained without charge, say RSF and CPJ, some of whom work for the outlawed Radio Dabanga. All are believed to have reported on Darfur, a highly sensitive topic for the government.

In November, after a wave of arrests, the government shut down Radio Dabanga's office in Khartoum and banned the station. The station, broadcasting from the Netherlands, is an independent radio channel that still reports news and information about Darfur.

RSF says that seven Radio Dabanga employees who have been detained since October 2010 have been accused of divulging state secrets, undermining the constitutional system, calling for resistance and inciting sedition. Those crimes are punishable with the death penalty.

IFEX members have frequently reported on Sudan's continuous attacks on press freedom - from targeting individual journalists and publications with trumped-up criminal charges and contrived legal proceedings to confiscating newspapers. On 4 September, security forces confiscated issues of "Al-Maydan", the bi-weekly paper of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP), as well as the daily "Al-Jarida", report Index on Censorship and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).

Index on Censorship reports that the Sudanese National Assembly is considering introducing more restrictive press laws and measures that would further suffocate freedom of expression. For instance, Sudan's ruling party is contemplating enforcing pre-publication censorship, by which security officers screen newspapers for items that they deem inappropriate so they can be removed before the paper goes for printing.

Meanwhile, the new state of South Sudan, overwhelmed by its development needs, has failed to understand that "independent media can protect people and promote sustainable development," explained Henry Maina of ARTICLE 19.

Since the birth of South Sudan on 9 July, President Salva Kiir Mayardit has begun his rule without a comprehensive media and information policy, says Maina. Instead, the government has given priority to health, education, agriculture, infrastructure and security. This neglect of journalists comes from there being little understanding of how the media could play a vital role in developing the country, giving voice to citizens who were previously silenced, says Maina.

In fact, security officers have applied Sudan's 2004 Press Council Act to the new country - for example, arresting and prosecuting the editor-in-chief of the Juba-based "Citizen" newspaper, Nhial Bol, under the act.

Maina reports that the President cannot mobilise South Sudanese citizens to help develop the country without support of local and national media. "Citizens must be clearly informed to be able to assist the government in developing key policies and immediate priorities for the young nation," he says. "This puts clear a case for the development of a sustainable public media-television, radio and Internet-based media."

ARTICLE 19 urges the President to immediately pass the Right to Information Bill, the Public Service Broadcasting Bill and the Broadcasting Frequency Management Bill.

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