Juba — Media group's in South Sudan have expressed deep concern that there are differences between the versions of the country's long-awaited draft media bill circulating in the capital Juba.
Editors and newspaper owners have pointing out significant differences between documents held by some government officials and the one passed by the council of ministers - the upper house of South Sudan's parliament.
"There was a shocking disparity in the two documents. The document held by the minister of justice and the one which was passed by the council of ministers do not reconcile", Charles Rehan Surur, Chairman of Board of Trustees and acting Managing Director of weekly newspaper The Juba Post said on Wednesday.
Daily Mentor Editor, Edward Lodu Terso, equally expressed disappointment and said he became aware of the difference between the two documents during a public meeting about the draft media bill. He called on the government to synchronize and reconcile the two documents before submitting them to the National Legislative Assembly - South Sudan's lower house.
Hakim Moi from the Association for Media Development in South Sudan said he also noticed some disparities in the media bills during public hearing. Moi said AMDISS is consulting with all the relevant stakeholders to ensure that the right bills are presented to the parliament.
South Sudan Law Society Secretary-General Dong Samuel also confirmed discrepancies in the media bills used by officials and those put under discussion during the public hearing and argued that the lawmaking process in South Sudan is not transparent.
Samuel pledged readiness to lobby MPs to ensure that the same media laws passed by the Council of Ministers are the ones presented and endorsed by the national parliament. The journalists expressed their professional concerns at a solidarity conference on media draft bills organized by AMDISS on Wednesday in Juba.
Meanwhile Aleu Ayeny Aleu, a member of the National Legislative Assembly heading the specialised committee on defense, security and public order in the house, called on the media to exercise patience, stressing that the media laws were still drafts subject for revision in the future once drafting of the new constitution is completed by the Constitutional Review Commission.
According to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), during the civil war, the South Sudanese press operated almost solely as a mouthpiece for the SPLM - former the rebel movement that has governed the country since a 2005 peace deal. Since coming to power the ruling party, and South Sudan's reactionary security forces have intimidated journalists and attacked press freedom on numerous occasions, CPJ say.
The SPLA, now the official army of South Sudan, were, from 1983 to 2005, a guerrilla movement whose stated aim was bring greater autonomy and civil liberties to South Sudan and the rest of the country.
However, a report by CPJ in September last year found that "local journalists fear that the former rebels turned government officials still harbor a war mentality that is unaccustomed to criticism, and that they are not prepared to extend the freedoms they fought hard to attain."
Article 24.(1) of the Transitional Constitution of South Sudan 2011, adopted on 9 July 2011 when the country seceded from Sudan, provides for the freedom of expression and media. It says:
"Every citizen shall have the right to the freedom of expression, reception and dissemination of information, publication, and access to the press without prejudice to public order, safety or morals as prescribed by law".
However, CPJ has observed that South Sudan's judicial system has a tendency to place large fines on media houses which cover sensitive issues such as corruption.
This is in spite of Article 24. (2) of the South Sudan's Transitional Constitution 2011 stating that:
"All levels of government shall guarantee the freedom of the press and other media as shall be regulated by law in a democratic society".
Despite governing South Sudan since 2005, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) has not passed a media law, which means that media groups and journalists do not know where they stand in relation to libel, defamation and other issues. The media bill, is currently in parliament for scrutiny, deliberation and ultimate passage into law, but has been the subject of discussion in the country since 2008.
With the draft bill being passed by the Council of States the writing of the media bill into law does appear to be drawing closer, triggering the Association for Media Development in South Sudan (AMDISS) to organise a one-day media forum to discuss the proposed media law.
It was at the meeting that the discrepancies between the versions was discovered.
The forum's aim was to ensure that media houses participate effectively in the process of drafting the final media bills before it is made into law by parliament.
"These are not the final bills. They are just drafts You will still revise these laws because we are coming up with a new constitution. We are coming up with a new security sector policy framework. Should there be any conflict, then these laws will have to be compatible with national security framework," Aleu said.
Veteran journalist Alfred Taban, who is the Editor of The Juba Monitor (formerly The Khartoum Monitor) and Chairperson of the Association for Media Development in South Sudan (AMDISS), urged media houses to support the media bills, so that they are passed by the national assembly.
"Let us go to the people. Let us go to the public. Let us go to our newspapers and radio stations and put out editorials very strongly supporting these laws. And if that does not succeed, let us go to the streets and demonstrate and we say we are demonstrating for the freedom of press or the passage of these laws so that the constituencies that these people represent will be the ones to put pressure on their MPs," Alfred said.