(June 15, 2009) On June 8, 2009, Sudan's National Assembly unanimously approved the Press and Publication Act (also referred to as the Journalism and Press Publications Bill 2009), which guarantees freedom of the press but fails to abolish censorship. A number of provisions of the draft law had been highly controversial, even sparking protests in the capital city of Khartoum. ((Sudan Parliament Passes 'Press Freedom' Law, AFP, June 8, 2009,WORLD NEWS CONNECTION online subscription database,Dialog Accession No. 281851230; Khalid Abdel Aziz & Skye Wheeler, Sudan Gets New Press Law but Restrictions Remain, REUTERS, June 8, 2009, available at http://www.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUSTRE5574BI20090608?feedType=
Among other stipulations, the 29-article Act provides for the formation of a national press council, based in Khartoum, to be subordinate to the presidency. The President has the power to choose six of the council's 21 members; his role, and the council's licensing powers, lead some journalists to view the council as still being too powerful under the new law. It will have the authority “to suspend a newspaper for up to three days without the involvement of a law court and will also license press companies and lay conditions for the registration of journalists, distributors and printers.” (Khalid & Skye, supra.)
A provision that would have allowed the Council to close newspapers was deleted from the initial version of the bill. (AFP, supra.) Legislators also removed a provision found in earlier drafts that would have allowed the council to fine journalists or newspapers up to SDG50,000 (about US$21,350) for “infractions.” Instead, courts will determine fixed penalties and any period of suspension to be imposed on newspapers. (Khalid & Skye, supra.)
The Act prohibits the press from “provoking religious or ethnic or racial sedition or calling for war or violence.” It calls upon the press to respect and protect public ethics and religious values. (AFP, supra.)
With the signing of the Act by the President of Sudan, Omar Hassan al Bashir, press censorship will become legally invalid; the Act states, “[t]here shall not be imposition of restrictions on freedom of press publication except according to law in issues pertaining to safeguarding the national security and public order and health.” (Id.). According to critics, this is a loophole that will permit continued state interference on grounds of national security or public order, making it unclear whether censorship will be reduced, especially since the country's intelligence services will still be authorized, under the National Security Act, to censor newspapers before their publication.
In the view of Selena Brewer of Human Rights Watch, “National Security [sic] has incredible sweeping powers of arrest for ill-defined acts against the state. Without its reform the new act is not going to be enough to ensure freedom of the press.” (Aziz & Skye, supra.) Ahead of the February 2010 general election, the government is reportedly considering the sensitive issue of redrafting the national security law. (AFP, supra.)