Sudan: Revise Repressive Press Law

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Sudan: Revise Repressive Press Law

End to Censorship Necessary for Free and Fair Elections in 2010

NEW YORK - Sudan's parliament should make major changes to a draft press law to ensure that it protects freedom of speech as guaranteed under the Sudanese constitution and international law, Human Rights Watch said today.

The proposed law, to be debated this week in parliament, is among 21 laws the two parties in the Government of National Unity have agreed to revise. Human Rights Watch said that these revisions are needed to bring Sudan's laws into line with the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement and to create an environment for free and fair elections, now slated for February 2010. However, the current version retains many repressive provisions.

"Revising the draft press act is a critical step in the law reform process," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The government's pre-print censorship, harassment, and arrests of journalists, editors, and human rights activists are stifling free speech as Sudan faces crucial elections."

Human Rights Watch said the draft press law contains many of the repressive provisions of the current 2004 Press and Publications Act, including strict media registration rules, vague reporting prohibitions, a National Press Council that lacks independence and has broad regulatory powers, and heavy fines and criminal sanctions for media outlets and journalists.

The government has stepped up harsh censorship practices against media over the past year, particularly after the rebel Justice and Equality Movement attack on Khartoum in May 2008. Sudanese security services have also cracked down on those who criticize the government or who have spoken out in support of international justice following the issuance of an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court for the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, on March 4, 2009.

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

In April, for instance, government censors effectively stopped publication of two newspapers. Ajras al-Hurriya, a daily paper that has been repeatedly censored, suspended publication for three days after censors objected to its coverage of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement secretary-general's comments at a news conference, and its coverage of the debate surrounding the draft press law. The following week, Al-Midan, a news weekly, opted not to publish when censors objected to 17 articles, including opinion pieces on the draft press law.

"The environment for journalists has been getting worse," said Kamal al Jizouli, a prominent journalist for the Sudanese newspaper Ajras al-Huriya. "We are not allowed to talk about anything sensitive, including the press law itself."

In conjunction with the 2004 press act, Sudanese authorities also rely on the sweeping powers of the 1999 National Security Forces Act (NSFA) to control the country's media and engage in direct pre-print censorship of newspapers that report on any politically sensitive issues, including the work of the International Criminal Court, developments in Darfur, and human rights concerns. National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) officers have used powers under this law to arrest and detain journalists and human rights defenders and to suspend and otherwise penalize newspapers.

The National Security Forces Act is also to be revised, and a draft is likely to be put before parliament in the coming weeks. Human Rights Watch is concerned by reports that the current draft contains powers for security services to detain individuals for up to one month without judicial review, in contravention of international standards that require individuals arrested to be promptly brought before a judge.

Human Rights Watch called on the Government of National Unity to ensure that all revised laws, which will include amendments to Sudan's criminal code, comply with international human rights standards.

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