By Roger Alfred Yoron Modi, 26th August 2021
The recent Order by the South Sudan Media Authority that the editor-in-chief of Al Watan Arabic Daily Newspaper Michael Christopher Rial pays within 30 days SSP 750,000 (USD 5,757) as fine “for circulating and inciting malicious and inciting contents on social media platforms” has no basis in law, including the very Act cited.
Last week, an article by Radio Tamazuj quoted a statement reportedly bearing the signature of Elijah Alier of the Media Authority as saying Rial violated “the act of transparency in paragraph 8 of the rules for practicing the profession of journalism in South Sudan for the year 2021.”
The letter went on to say that the decision is taken on the basis of Section 57 (1) and (2) of the Media Authority Act, 2013, and that failure to fully comply will lead to administrative action against Al Watan Arabic Daily Newspaper in accordance with Section 57 (4) of the Media Authority Act, 2013. Well, those arguments from the Media Authority are contradictory; the sections of the law quoted are misleading, they are also not in line with the Media Authority Act, 2013, thereby having no legal basis.
Here are what the law, the Sections cited above and the Media Authority Act actually say and mean:
1- Section 57 (1) and (2) of the Media Authority Act, 2013
While indeed the Section of the Media Authority Act, 2013 which the Media Authority says is the basis for its decision provides for Sanctions where a licensee is in breach of the Advertisement, Programme, Technical Code or other licence condition or provision of the Media Authority Act, the licensee the Media Authority Act is referring to does not include Newspapers, Social Media or Internet users.
Section 6 (14) (d) of the Media Authority Act is explicit that information and content publishers on the internet or suppliers thereof shall not be licensed solely for the reason that they reside on the internet. The Media Authority Act, 2013 also says “…there shall be no licensing or registration of newspapers, news agencies, magazines and periodicals or other printed media, or of websites or sources of content on the Internet, other than that required by law for any business seeking to engage in a commercial or non-profit activity…” (see Section 6 (13) (I)). The use of Internet and New Media, according to The Act, shall include promotion of freedom of expression, open standards and open access to such Internet and New Media.
Therefore, the claim by the Media Authority that their decision to sanction (fine) journalist Rial or Al- Watan Newspaper where Rial is the editor-in-chief, has no basis under Section 57(1) (2) which they have cited. The Sanctions the Media Authority Act is referring to under Sections 57 (1) and (2) have their background under Chapter Five of The Media Authority Act which provides for Frequency Planning and Licensing for Broadcasters to promote optimal use of the broadcasting frequency spectrum and the widest possible broadcasting diversity. These include: (a)Public Broadcasters; (b) Commercial Broadcasters; (c) Community Broadcasters; (d) Radio and Television Broadcasters; (e) Local Broadcasters; (f ) Regional Broadcasters; and (g) Broadcasters whose geographic area of coverage extends to the whole of South Sudan (Section 33(2) of The Media Authority Act). And even then, Section 33(2) is clear that all those are still subject to the noble and progressive broadcasting policy and guiding principles set out in Section 6 of the Media Authority Act.
Journalists Rial’s personal activities on the internet have no connection to the newspaper and the Sections of the Media Authority Act, 2013 which have been cited to fine him and by extension the newspaper, in case he does not pay the fine. Also, Al-Watan is a Newspaper and cannot be sanctioned under Section 57 (4) which is for broadcast licensees.
The Media Authority should try legitimate ways to address media issues. They should recall that, according to the Act, the role of the Media Authority is to regulate, develop and promote independent and professional media in South Sudan. And that Media Authority shall be a regulatory body for the broadcast media and transformation of government and state-controlled television and radio into a public broadcasting corporation. Section 19 (1) of the Act says the Media Authority shall ensure that media development and press freedoms in South Sudan are consistent with Constitutional and International guarantees of freedom of expression and shall promote public interest in the media sector specifically by, among others, amicably resolving legal complaints of defamation, incitement to violence, hate speech and invasion of privacy.
2- Codes of Ethics and Guidelines for Professional Conduct for Print and Broadcast journalists
The Media Authority Statement quoted by Radio Tamazuj says Rial violated “the act of transparency in paragraph 8 of the rules for practicing the profession of journalism in South Sudan for the year 2021.”
In April this year, the Media Authority launched “a code of conduct for the practice of journalism” in South Sudan. But where do these “rules” or “code of conduct” fall within the legal framework, the provisions of the Media Authority Act, 2013?
As per the provisions of the Act, it is the Press and Broadcast Complaints Council that has the responsibility to, among others, promote and adopt codes of ethics and guidelines for professional conduct for print and broadcast journalists (See Section 21 (6) of the Act). The Act says, the Press and Broadcast Complaints Council, which shall be an autonomous body, shall consist of a chairperson who shall be a media regulatory expert, or a judge of first or second grade, or a practicing advocate with at least five years’ experience and four other members with at least a secondary school leaving certificate all of whom shall be appointed by the Board of Directors of the Media Authority.
Their selection, the Acts says, is to be done by the Board of Directors of the Media Authority through an open and transparent process, in consultation with the Managing Director who shall first vet the nominees for positions in the complaints council, and a member of the Press and Broadcast Complaints Council shall not be a holder of a political position in a political party or an elected office (Sections 21 (2) and 21 (4) of the Act.)
Based on my knowledge, and I’m sure many observers and professionals in the media fraternity will agree with me, there has never been a time where the Press and Broadcast Complaints Council was established. If so, then on what is the validity and legality of the so-called “rules for practicing the profession of journalism in South Sudan for the year 2021” or “code of conduct for the practice of journalism” which the Media Authority is using and promoting? Furthermore, one key point to note is that even the Codes of Ethics and Guidelines for Professional Conduct for Print and Broadcast journalists which the Press and Broadcast Complaints Council has the responsibility to promote and adopt, cannot contravene but be in line with the Media Authority Act, 2013.
3- The Media Authority versus Requirements for Transparency
In promoting transparency in its functions, the law requires the Media Authority to establish an official internet website where all public documents including media policies, plans, codes, tenders and decisions of the Authority shall be posted (Section 19 (3)). This is something the Media Authority has not done despite its establishment several years ago. They should do it as required, otherwise, they will continue to lack both moral and legal authority on many of their actions.