Repressive press law passed in Sudan

New York, June 11, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned by the passage of a Sudanese press law on Monday that falls short of international standards for freedom of expression

After multiple rounds of debate and 15 amendments, parliament passed the controversial bill unanimously, although detailed information about the amendments has not been released. CPJ analysis found numerous shortcomings in the press bill, which was introduced to the Sudanese National Assembly in April‏.‏

“The passage of this press law is a substantial step backward for press freedom in Sudan, despite some last-minute amendments that mitigate some of the more draconian elements of the legislation,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa. “Under this law, journalists are severely hampered in their work by legal restrictions and censorship. It should be repealed.”

In an earlier draft, the National Press Council was authorized to shut newspapers down indefinitely, but under the version that was passed the council can only suspend newspapers for up to three days without a court decision, Reuters reported.

The final version of the law prohibits the confiscation of newspaper copies and the imprisonment of journalists for alleged press offenses. While previous drafts of the bill set a fine of 50,000 Sudanese pounds (US$21,000) for press-related offenses, the amended version grants courts discretion in determining fines against journalists and publications, according to local and international news reports.

“The amendments were not up to the level of the demands of journalists,” Murtadha al-Ghali, editor-in-chief of the independent Ajras al-Huriya, told CPJ. “Still there are licensing, punishments, and censorship in the law.”  

The press law states that no restrictions will be placed on freedom of the press except on “issues pertaining to safeguarding the national security and public order and health.” However, a 1999 National Security Forces Law grants security forces significant powers over the media, which in practice have allowed them to censor newspapers, local journalists told CPJ.‎ 

Since February 2008, after a number of newspapers accused the Sudanese government of backing a failed coup in neighboring Chad, journalists in Sudan have complained about a spike in censorship imposed by security agents. More pervasive censorship followed the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir in March, journalists said.

Every night security officers visit newspapers to determine what they can print and what will be censored, the journalists told CPJ. They said security officers had censored so many stories that newspapers have been unable to go to print on multiple occasions.

“We didn’t publish the newspaper yesterday and today because of censorship,” Murtadha al-Ghali, editor-in-chief of the independent Ajras al-Huriya, told CPJ.