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South Sudan's draft media laws must ensure independence from political influence

Workers are seen during a print run of The Citizen newspaper late at night in a warehouse in Juba, 22 May 2012.
Workers are seen during a print run of The Citizen newspaper late at night in a warehouse in Juba, 22 May 2012.

REUTERS/Adriane Ohanesian

By Shadi Alkasim, IPI Li Fellow

Following lengthy efforts to establish laws on public broadcasting, media regulation and freedom of information in South Sudan, a package of media legislation is now awaiting approval by President Salva Kiir.

Some local media organisations see the measures as a step in the right direction. In a review carried out by the International Press Institute (IPI) drawing on interviews and an analysis of the draft laws and outside assessments, the legislation does appear to establish the foundation for a more independent and competitive media environment.

But IPI's assessment also shows that the proposed measures fall short of international standards in some cases – in particular as it introduces statutory regulation of journalism ethics, an area IPI believes should be better left to self-regulatory mechanisms.

The legislative package includes the South Sudan Public Broadcasting Corporation Law aimed at promoting “high quality broadcasting and guarantee[ing] the independence of the public broadcasting service, free flow of information and any related corporation,” as stated in Article 3 of the legislation. Currently, the state-owned South Sudan Radio and Television is solely controlled by the government and serves as an official mouthpiece rather than exercising a public function.

The proposed Media Authority Law regulates the establishment of an oversight body with the purpose of “promoting an independent pluralistic media in the public interest,” as stated in Article 3 of the legislation.
Rounding out the legislative package, the Right of Access to Information Law would establish the legal right to information as stipulated under Article 32 of the Transitional Constitution and create an Information Commission to oversee implementation and enforcement.

Slow legislative process

Parliament approved the public broadcasting legislation on June 22, 2013, and on July 8, the eve of South Sudan's Independence Day, the Media Authority and Right of Access to Information drafts were adopted. The measures were sent to the legislature's upper chamber, the Council of States, on Sept. 13 for consideration before being sent to the president. President Kiir must sign the bills before they become law.

Despite the legislative progress, some media advocates were concerned that not all members of the government supported of the legislation, particularly the draft law on access to information, a representative of the Association for Media Development in South Sudan (ADMISS) told IPI. “Freedom of expression is still a dream,” the official said, adding that some officials believed the young country was not prepared for open-access laws.

But Oliver Modi Philip, the Union of Journalists of South Sudan (UJOSS) chairperson, told IPI that he was confident the three media measures would become law. He described the proposals as meeting “international standards” and said the legislation was drafted and debated with the “full participation of all stakeholders.” The legislation, he said, provides a regulatory framework for the media that is vital to the country's democratic development, and will help foster media independence. Philip also said the proposals would eventually lead to greater access to information, plus encourage the flow of information and opinions that will advance “democratic practices, good governance, […] the rule of law, and understanding of human rights.”

While pointing out the importance of the bills, Philip expressed concern that the delay in the their enactment had put brakes on the development of independent news media in the country, which became independent more than two years ago. Furthermore, he fears there could be further delays due to a lack of funds allocated for implementation and for the creation of institutions and authorities established by the legislation.

Another challenge is awareness, Philip said. Not all journalists have followed the legislative process and once the measures become law, there is a need to ensure that journalists and other media professionals are aware of their legal rights and responsibilities.

'Excessive limitations on press freedom'

While acknowledging the need to swiftly implement media legislation - in particular for a fair and independent allocation of the frequency spectrum to private and community broadcasters and the transformation of the state broadcaster into a truly public service broadcaster - IPI is concerned about some provisions in the bills, which do not entirely reflect international standards.

“The proposed legislation, if properly implemented, would certainly represent an important step forward in South Sudan's democratisation process,” IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi noted. “While the bills show an intention to promote press freedom in line with international standards, they in some cases foresee excessive limitations on press freedom, fail to provide strong guarantees for the independence of the regulatory authorities, and, what is most concerning, introduce statutory regulation of areas that should be best left to self-regulatory mechanisms.”

IPI is also concerned that the legislation, as written, opens the door to governmental control over the news media. The Media Authority Law foresees the creation of a Media Authority “for the regulation, development and promotion of an independent and professional media in South Sudan.” While the legislation foresees that the National Legislative Authority and civil society organisations put forward suggestions of candidates for the Media Authority's board of directors, it also states that “the Chairperson, Vice Chairperson and Members of the Board [are] appointed by the President on the recommendation of the Minister upon approval by a simple majority of the members of the National Legislative Assembly”.

Furthermore, the president has the power to remove members from the board “upon a resolution, passed by a simple majority vote of the members of the National Legislative Assembly.”

“The true independence of the Media Authority is vital for the development of successful, independent media that are able to reflect the multiplicity of ideas and opinions circulating in South Sudan,” Trionfi noted. “The current bill allows the country's president with a simple majority in the Legislative Assembly to change the composition of the Authority. Stronger guarantees are needed to allow this body to take decisions independently from the government.”

Article 21 of the Media Authority Bill regulates the creation and the powers of the Press and Broadcast Council, an organ established by the Media Authority to “resolve ethical and legal complaints of journalistic wrongdoing” and “hearing and resolving ethics complaints.”

“While it is legitimate that issues such as defamation, hate speech, breach of privacy, protection of minors, etc. are regulated in a statutory manner, the drafting of a journalistic code of ethics and compliance with it should be left entirely to self-regulatory mechanisms established solely by the profession,” Trionfi stated. “The imposition of statutory regulation in the field of journalistic ethics raises great concerns about South Sudan's sincere will to allow a free press to operate.”

Safety of journalists

Since voting to separate from Sudan, South Sudan has not been immune to attacks on journalists. Journalists complain of harassment and arbitrary detention by the security forces, in particular the National Security Service (NSS).

On July 28, 2013, two Ugandan journalists were arrested in Juba by security agents for allegedly working without accreditation and filming near a government security installation. In the same month, security authorities suspended a Catholic radio station after it investigated and reported on the suspicious death of a prisoner, and for its alleged critical reporting on the government. On Dec. 5, 2012, a well-known commentator and journalist, Isaiah Abraham, was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen outside his home in Juba. Media reports said that Abraham, whose writings often expressed views critical of the government, had received a number of threats, including anonymous telephone calls and text messages ordering him to stop writing, according to the South Sudan Human Rights Society for Advocacy (SSHURSA).

Between March 2012 to April 2013, Human Rights Watch reported numerous attacks on journalists, mainly abuse of power by the NSS. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), meanwhile, said it documented at least 12 cases of “attacks, harassment, and detention” of journalists in South Sudan. Harassment of the news media has also come to the attention of the international community.

The head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said on Feb. 15, 2013, that the U.N. was alarmed over increasing threats and violence against journalists and human rights activists. "UNMISS is deeply disturbed by reports of threats, intimidation, harassment and attacks against journalists, civil society and human rights activists," Hilde Johnson, the U.N. envoy in South Sudan, told reporters.

A few months later, on May 25, the United States' envoy to South Sudan said the government in Juba had the constitutional mandate to protect journalists. “The U.S. government is very concerned about the deteriorating levels of press freedom in the country. The continued push back, intimidation and harassment of journalists is a violation of their rights and freedoms,” Ambassador Susan Page told reporters in the South Sudanese capital of Juba.

Michael Minassie, an Ethiopian journalist and radio producer who worked for Radio Miraya , which is operated by the U.N. and the Swiss group Fondation Hirondelle, shared with IPI his experience working in South Sudan. “During the 2010 election, one of the national journalists who was under my direct supervision in the regions was intimidated by the governor of one state for covering opposition political parties' complaints of election irregularities despite the fact that the reporter made sure to get all versions of the story. When I was covering a rally of citizens of Abyei in Wau opposing the forced occupation of their area by Sudan Armed Forces, [an] intelligence person in pain clothes interrupted me from recording the governor's speech for few minutes, although I was wearing my UN ID.

“Another encounter was during the 2011 referendum [on independence]. I was covering the voting in Warrap with my colleague when we heard [a] cattle raid incident near Turalei that claimed the lives of some people and got many injured. We had to travel from Kuajok, the state capital, to Turalei to talk to some victims at the hospital there and drive back to Wau to file the story,” Minassie told IPI in an e-mail response.

Driving home late that evening, “I was stopped by armed police units, forced out of the UN vehicle, harassed and looted. Apart from these [incidents], I can say most of the authorities in South Sudan were fair in their approach to me as a media professional.”

IPI recommendations:

  • The administration of President Salva Kiir should urge the National Legislative Assembly to amend the Media Authority Law to create an independent media regulatory body that includes members appointed by news organisations - and not just politicians.
  • Provisions imposing statutory regulation of media content and compliance with a statutory code of ethics must be removed.
  • Lawmakers should more clearly define how the public broadcaster and other media authorities are to be funded to ensure independence from political influence.
  • Media organisations and the political authorities should prepare an education campaign to help journalists and the public understand their rights and obligations under the new media laws.

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