Freedom of the press: the first to go

By Jessica Edgson

Pics supplied

What do Mugabe, Hitler and the apartheid regime all have in common? Besides, of course, bizarre facial hair and ‘unusual’ political ideals, the answer is that they all had a vendetta against the freedom of the press.

Press freedom is an important part of maintaining a democracy and it is usually the first thing to go during times of political unrest – a time when it is needed the most. That is why a new draft press law in Sudan is causing quite a bit of unease. The draft law gives Sudanese authorities the right to shut down newspapers, as well as fine them heavily for presumed misconduct. The draft press law may be new, but press restrictions in Sudan have been on the up and up for the past few years.

Although the fighting and bloodshed have been going on for six years in Darfur (a Western region of Sudan), resulting in uproar throughout the western world, it is still a relatively unknown problem to those living in Sudan. The reason for this is that, even before the draft press law came out, newspapers were being checked by state censors before going public. Al-Haj Ali Waraq Sid Ahmed, the managing editor of a Sudanese daily newspaper, told news24 that, “Because of the censorship, for the ordinary people in Khartou, Darfur is veiled.” Government censorship looks like it is only going to get worse, especially with the new Bill in the works. “In the beginning, the censors stopped you publishing certain issues, now they are asking why you do not cover Beshir’s visits and pro-Beshir demonstrations,” Sid Ahmed explained. The president is currently trying to win over support after the International Criminal Court accused him of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

If the new press law is passed, non-compliance with the law will be punishable by a fine of up to 50 000 Sudanese pounds or authorities can have the newspaper shut down. The increasing censorship has had journalists outraged over the past 12 months. In early November last year, an estimated 200 to 300 Sudanese journalists went on a hunger strike to oppose government censorship. Later that month, around 70 journalists were arrested after a mass protest outside parliament. In February this year, Canadian-Egyptian reporter, Heba Aly, was expelled from Sudan for reporting on the arms industry and the situation in Darfur. With the continuation of press censorship and the possibility of this new Bill, it looks like only pro-government newspapers will be surviving in Sudan in the near future. For many of us living in Africa, this feels like a bad case of déjà vu.


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