South Sudan signs media bills into law amid press freedom concerns

South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir signed three long-awaited media bills into law this week. In principle it is a significant win for the country’s beleaguered media, but local media groups are concerned over their implementation and ongoing clampdowns on the press

The three laws cover the right to access to information, public service broadcasting, and media regulation.

They provide measures for the creation of a national, independent public service provider and the establishment of an independent body to oversee content and deal with complaints, as well as to protect the right of access to official information.

The signing of the bills comes amid widespread violent conflict in the country and ongoing clampdowns on the independent press.

Since the conflict began in December 2013, the National Security Service (NSS) has harassed and detained journalists, summoned them for questioning, and told some to leave the country, said Human Rights Watch in August.

One newspaper, the Almajhar Alsayasy, was given explicit instructions to cease publication and the government has held issues of another weekly newspaper, Juba Monitor, eight times since January. In June, an entire run of the Citizen, a daily newspaper, was seized.

In August, Bakhita Radio was raided and closed after the government ordered it to not air ‘political programming’. In September, security officials gave Bakhita Radio permission to reopen. August also saw a reporter from another radio station, Radio Miraya, detained and accused of ‘collaborating with rebels’.

In September, the former Security Advisor at the Ministry of Interior, Khamis Abdel-Latif, was appointed to lead the government-controlled South Sudan Radio and Television. This has raised concerns among media groups in the country, due to the former security official’s close ties to the government and its security apparatus.

Media groups have also expressed their concern over a draft bill seeking to define the powers of the National Security Service. The bill would grant broad criminal immunity to NSS officers, as well as powers of surveillance and to search and seize property without clear judicial oversight, according to Human Rights Watch.

The drafting of the three media laws began in 2006 and they were presented to parliament in 2012. After years of advocacy and legal input from IMS’ local partner, the Association for Media Development in South Sudan (AMDISS), the bills were then finally signed into law by President Kiir on Tuesday.

Media groups which have spent years pushing for the bills’ enactment have not received copies of the final documents. AMDISS and others said they are concerned that the content of the bills may have been altered after they were approved by parliament last year and before they reached their final signed status.

“There has been much deception in this area of the media bills, so we have a right to be sceptical,” said AMDISS Chairman Jacob Akol, adding that the passing of the bills into law remains an important step forward in the protection of journalists’ rights.

“The three bills mark an important step forward for press freedom and access to information in South Sudan,” said IMS’ Programme Manager for South Sudan, Line Wolf Nielsen.

“For too long, the media has been operating in a legal vacuum creating uncertainty about journalists’ rights and obligations. The new laws hold the potential to improve the media’s ability to contribute to public discussions about how to end the political crisis and internal armed conflict.”

Now that they are signed into law, the crucial next phase concerns their implementation, said Line Wolf Nielsen.

“The laws have great potential to bring about more transparent and accountable public institutions through improved access to information and public service broadcasting, but they won’t work unless the South Sudanese authorities ensure effective implementation.”

According to the UN, the war in South Sudan has driven an estimated 1.5 million people from their homes since it broke out in December last year. Over a million have been displaced within South Sudan, and more than 400,000 have fled to neighboring countries.

The conflict began in the capital Juba, triggered by a political dispute between President Salva Kiir, from the Dinka ethnicity, and former Vice President Riek Machar, from the Nuer ethnicity. The fighting quickly spread across large swathes of the eastern part of the country.

The war has had a direct impact on South Sudan’s media. Journalists have been internally displaced due to the fighting or forced to leave the country, and media infrastructure has been damaged and destroyed.