Wanted: Media laws for the young journalists of South Sudan

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Since their country gained independence, journalists in South Sudan have been randomly arrested, thrown out of parliament and denied reactions from government officials. Many of those who report on the 17-month-old nation are young themselves, and few of them have studied journalism. Some are accused of writing on hearsay or failing to check their facts. But one fact everyone seems to agree on is that South Sudan desperately needs media legislation.

By Anne Haaksman de Koster

It’s 9 p.m., and Peter Louis sits in a small office, surrounded by cameras and cables. He still hasn't finished updating his Facebook page, but even though he doesn't get paid, he'll get the job done before going to bed. The 255 members of the Journalists of South Sudan (JOSS) Facebook page, which the freelance cameraman and photographer began a year ago, rely on him. 

“Before I set up this page, nobody knew where and when there was a press conference or an event. Everybody called everybody up to get information,” Louis says.

The JOSS page also serves as a forum for journalists to “debate the ethics and challenges of the profession”, as Louis puts it. And one regular topic is the need for media laws. “Journalists are still being harassed. Adopting laws will help. It won't provide one hundred percent protection for reporters”, Louis sighs, “but at least it is better than nothing”.

Know-how and ethics
In response to their challenges – censorship and self-censorship, chief among them – some journalists are calling not just for laws, but also for education. Agele Benson Amos, who works for Spirit FM and is head of the Yei branch of the Union of Journalists of South Sudan (UJOSS), is one of them. With five years of field experience under his belt, Amos teaches a group of 30 secondary school graduates who aspire to become reporters free of charge.

“Knowledge and practice are needed. Otherwise, stories might not be well balanced, or sensitive issues could be wrongly reported. This can bring people into trouble with the authorities”, says Amos. “I want to give others opportunities and help build our media sector. Currently, there are no media laws and no journalism schools, but reporters need to have the know-how and observe ethics.”

At present, South Sudan's parliament is considering the Broadcasting Corporation Bill, the Media Authority Bill and the Right of Access to Information Bill. But the legislators are dragging their feet. As long as there are no laws, the climate will remain as it is and the future uncertain.

The first meetings on media legislation started just before the end of the Sudanese civil war in 2005. International organizations, such as Danish International Media Support (IMS) and Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA), were involved in the discussions and, although a draft law reached South Sudan’s transitional parliament, it didn’t get much farther.

For years, media legislation stayed in a grey zone. Issues like libel and defamation were not defined by law. South Sudan’s leadership, formed largely by ex-fighters of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), didn’t know how to handle the media. Inexperienced journalists didn’t know their rights or obligations.

“When I was appointed in 2011, the minister of information instructed me to restart the process”, says the current deputy information minister, Atem Yaak Atem, a former SPLA radio journalist and founding chief editor of the independent weekly The Pioneer. According to him, a committee had even visited Kenya and other East African countries to compare laws and get advice.

Strong media
Atem acknowledges that international organisations and outspoken local journalists can influence the legislation process. Yet, the minister is also wary of media houses established around the time of independence. He suggests that most new newspapers and radio stations are substandard and unprofessional. “Only strong media can inform our people and take on our weak and corrupt institutions”, Atem says. “But let everybody try their luck. Some will die by the roadside while others gain strength.”

Mathiang Cirillo is a 26-year-old giving it a go. The editor-in-chief of the Juba-based Arabic daily Almasir runs a newsroom with ten journalists, half of whom are being trained on the job.

In early 2012, one of them was arrested and incarcerated for two weeks without charges – an incident that Cirillo calls “a negative sign of the freedom of expression in our country”. Imagining how things could be otherwise, he says: “media laws would guide the case, but currently we have to seek mediation. Almasir reports on everything except issues that affect state security because we are not protected to do so.”