Sudan: Media laws drafted during COVID-19 don’t meet free speech standards

Sudan: Media laws drafted during COVID-19 don’t meet free speech standards - Media

In November 2021, ARTICLE 19 published a legal analysis of Sudan’s Draft Media laws and found that they failed to meet international freedom of expression standards. Media legislation in the country has been a concern for years and reforms were needed to bring it under international freedom of expression standards. Therefore, reforms of the Draft Proposal on the Radio and Television Corporation Act (the Radio and Television Corporation Proposal) and the Draft Proposal on the Press Council Act (2021) (the Press Act Proposal) are long overdue. However, they fail to address many of the underlying issues of the current legislation. Overall, we note that there is still a severe lack of independence in the bodies created by the Draft Proposals and that the proposals rely on vague and overbroad definitions that leave processes open to abuse. We are also very concerned that these draft laws have been put forward in times where the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has added new challenges to the media to operate in a pluralistic and safe environment.  

Sudan has long suffered from a lack of pluralistic and independent media, which severely harms freedom of expression and access to information in the country. Therefore, ARTICLE 19 welcomes the steps that have been taken to reform the current draconian legislation. Following the 21 November agreement, freedom of the media must be guaranteed as an open and diverse media landscape is crucial in any democratic society.

The Press Council Act

ARTICLE 19 reiterated that press acts often become tools for governments to crack down on media criticism and opposing voices. We believe that journalists and the media should not be subject to overly restrictive measures that de facto limit their freedom of expression. The media serves the role of public watchdog and holds the government to account. Without it, individuals cannot receive information of public interest and form their own opinions. Press laws should therefore always be approached with caution and should more often than not be abolished in favour of laws of general application, such as civil codes that apply to all citizens without distinction.

While ARTICLE 19 recognises that the law has positive aspects such as the protection of sources, guaranteeing access of journalists to state institutions and meetings and the prohibition of prior censorship, the Press Act Proposal still contains many issues:

  • Licensing of journalists in practice: Under international law, the licensing of journalists is never justified. These schemes become tools for governments to eliminate independent journalism which considerably harms pluralistic media. Restrictive burdens on the practice of journalism are a barrier to freedom of expression as it contradicts the essence of free and independent media.
  • Vague sanctions and restrictions on reporting: The Press Act Proposal imposes affirmative obligations on journalists with a Press Council to “hold accountable” those that breach the Act’s requirements. Accountability is not defined and individuals have no notice of what rules will apply to them under the Act nor of the scope of the penalties that could follow.
  • Restrictive statutory duties of journalists: The Press Council has authority to determine professional standards but there does not seem to be any limitations on the definitions of these standards. For example, the right to correction is not accompanied by appropriate safeguards and leaves journalists open to sanction if within three days of a complaint they do not correct the “incorrect” information.
  • The Press Council is not a self-regulatory or fully independent body: It is a statutory body comprised of eight members chosen from the general assembly of registered journalists and approved by the Speaker of the Legislative Council. This does not represent the current media landscape and severely limits the diversity within the Press Council. There are also so safeguards against government interference.

The Radio and Television Corporation Proposal

ARTICLE 19 noted that the Radio and Television Corporation Proposal lacks government independence. We highlighted several instances where the independence of the Board of Governors, the Director General and the Corporation are questionable:

  • The Board of Governors: The composition of the Board of Governors is left to the discretion of the Council of Ministers whose process is opaque to the public. Government or political officials are also not excluded from sitting on the Board of Governors.
  • The Director General: Appointed by the Board of Ministers, the position allows for broad and potentially limitless powers as in addition to having the ability to set and implement editorial policies, the Director General can conduct “any other competencies” assigned by the Board of Governors.
  • The Corporation relies on the government’s approval of its funding sources. The Corporation is able to receive government funding but grants and gifts may also be received if the Minister of Finance and Economic Planning approves.

With its lack of independence from the government in both its composition, operations and funding, it is hard to believe that the Corporation’s procedures will not be misused. The Corporation cannot achieve its aim when the possibility of government interference is this blatant.

In the current context, where attacks on the media and protestors are concerning, Sudan must take a strong stance to protect freedom of expression and media freedom. This is also important in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, where access to information has been extremely important. If there is a lack of diverse and independent media, individuals cannot access the information they need to understand the full extent of the pandemic.

ARTICLE 19 concludes that the current draft proposals do not go far enough to guarantee freedom of the media. They fail to offer the media a safe and open environment in which they can truly exist independently and free from retaliation and censorship. We call for a radical overhaul of these proposals to ensure that media legislation meets international standards on freedom of expression.

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