June 8, 2009 / 4:54 PM / 9 years ago

Sudan gets new press law but restrictions remain

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan Monday passed an amended version of a media bill that sparked protests in Khartoum last month, but the new version failed to allay the fears of many Sudanese journalists.

Dozens of Sudan’s laws were to be overhauled under a 2005 north-south peace deal that called for the democratization of the country, but the new Journalism and Press Publications Bill 2009 is one of the few to have reached parliament.

The peace accord, which ended more than 20 years of fighting between the north and south, also promised Sudan’s first free elections in 24 years. Analysts and Sudanese opposition politicians have said a new press law is crucial for the February ballot.

Journalists said Monday they were pleased legislators had removed a section from earlier drafts that would have allowed a powerful press council to fine journalists or newspapers up to 50,000 Sudanese Pounds ($21,000).

In the final version, law courts decide penalties and can choose how long to suspend newspapers.

But the new press bill leaves room for state interference on the grounds of national security or public order and it remains unclear if censorship will be reduced.

Newspapers have long complained that officials from Sudan’s national security apparatus have censored articles, seized print runs, shut down newspapers for weeks at a time and interfered with the transport of papers out of Khartoum.

“National Security 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,” Selena Brewer from the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said.

Some journalists fear the council, six of whose 21 members will be chosen by Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al Bashir, is still too powerful under the new law.

The council will have the power 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.

“It will be like the law we have now,” an editor who asked not to be named said, adding the role of the president in the council and its licensing powers meant the legislation fell short of what had been desired.

Reporting by Khalid Abdel Aziz, additional reporting by Skye Wheeler

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