December 13, 2012 (JUBA) - South Sudan lawmakers on Wednesday started deliberations on draft legislation to regulate the young nation’s media industry.
The bills were presented for the first reading by the specialise committee on information, culture and communications, a month after public hearings were conducted by various media groups.
South Sudan’s parliament appears to be divided on the future of the press but some influential members of the house have pledged to ensure the bills will be subjected to thorough parliamentary debate before they are passed into law.
Mel Wal Achien, a member of parliament from Northern Bahr el Ghazal State, said the bills are very important because they will guarantee independence of the “watchdog”.
South Sudan’s press and civil rights activists, as well as politicians and victims of press intrusion, have been calling for the government to introduce media laws since 2005 when a peace ended decades of civil war and brought former rebels the SPLM to power.
One of the SPLM’s aims during the civil war was to allow freedom of expression and of the press but, while in government these freedoms have not always been accorded to journalists despite South Sudan seceding from Sudan in July last year.
Until this month, despite some instances of journalist being beaten while in custody no journalist had been killed in connection to their work. This appeared to change on 5 December a political columnist who was frequently critical of the SPLM-led government was shot dead in the capital Juba.
Friends and family say Isaiah Ding Abraham Chan Awuol has received numerous threats to stop writing before he was shot by unknown men outside his house.
Newspaper editors and proprietors in South Sudan have also complained that clear media laws need to be introduced so they now where they stand in terms of libel and defamation.
Mary Kiden MP, who represents Kajokeji County in Central Equatoria State told South Sudan’s parliament that she the draft bill should be discussed at length before passing it into law as she has "some serious concerns and misgivings on these bills".
For that reason, the MP said, "We need to read and understand these draft laws properly. We need to avoid our usual way of receiving draft laws and dump them without them to understand the contents."
Passing the media bills "will be big achievement not only to the journalists but also to the country and our people. So we need to think very, very carefully before passing them”, Kiden said.
Media groups and civil society organizations have broadly accepted the need for a tougher press watchdog but have been united in their opposition to provision in the proposed bill law which gives responsibility for appointing of the head of public broadcasting and corporation to country’s President based on recommendation of the minister of information.
Sabit James, an independent journalist from Western Equatoria State, told Sudan Tribune that parliament needs to amend the part of the bill that allows the minister of information to recommend appointment of head of public broadcasting. James said that the house should also not allow members of the press body to be chosen from people who are already with the government.
"The new watchdog must not be picked from among the old guards of the ministry of information", he said.
"The body should be composed of completely new independent groups. Because there are lots of things needed to be done. We also want to ensure that deliberation process is right and open. We need to ensure that it is fair, that it’s got sanctions that it can investigate”, he explained.
Some news agencies in their editorials are already arguing that the responsibility is now on the newspapers to show they could come up with a tougher watchdog without legislation being required.