Since their country gained independence, journalists in South Sudan have been randomly arrested, thrown out of parliament for no apparent reason and denied reactions from government officials. Many of those who report on the 17-month-old nation are young themselves and rarely have attended journalism school. Some are accused of writing on hearsay or failing to fact-check. But one fact everyone seems to agree on is that South Sudan desperately needs media legislation.
It’s 9 PM and Peter Louis sits in a small office, surrounded by cameras and cables. He will not be done with the updating for a while, but he’ll finish this job for which he gets no pay. 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 ongoing event. Everybody called everybody by phone to get any information,” he says.
The JOSS page also serves as a forum for journalists to “engage in debate on ethics and challenges of the profession”, as Louis puts it. And one regular topic is the need for media laws. “There is still harassment of journalists. The passing of the laws is important. It will not be a hundred percent,” 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 volunteer teaches a group of 30 secondary school graduates who aspire to become reporters.
“Knowledge and practice is needed. Otherwise, stories might not be well balanced, or sensitive issues are wrongly reported. This can bring people into trouble with the security,” 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 journalists need to have the know-how and stick to ethics.”
At present, South Sudan’s parliament is considering the Broadcasting Corporation Bill, the Media Authority Bill and the Right to Access to Information Bill. But the considerations are advancing very slowly. For as long as there are no laws, the climate remains as it is and the future is insecure.
The first meetings on media legislation started just before the Sudanese civil war’s end 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 for 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 current deputy minister of information Atem Yaak Atem, a former SPLA radio journalist and founding chief editor for independent weekly The Pioneer. According to him, a committee had even visited Kenya and other East African countries to compare laws and get advice.
Atem acknowledges how international organizations 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 battle the weak and corrupt institutions we have,” 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 trying his luck indeed. 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 the country”. Imagining how things could be otherwise, he says: “The media law would guide the case, but currently we seek mediation. Almasir reports on everything except things that affect the security of the state because we are not protected of we do.”