South Sudan’s parliament has passed two bills to improve press freedom, an official said on Wednesday, a move reporters in the African country hope will strengthen their rights in the face of regular harassment by the authorities.
Journalists in South Sudan, which seceded from Sudan in 2011, often complain of obstruction and arbitrary detention by the security forces, a loose conglomeration of former militias from decades of civil war with Khartoum.
Reporters said it remained to be seen how the plans, under discussion for more than five years, would be enforced by a government made up largely of former guerrilla commanders who are used to acting with impunity and dislike any scrutiny.
The first of the two bills approved by the national assembly grants every citizen the right to information unless it poses a threat to national security or someone’s privacy, said Louis Baptist from the ministry of parliamentary affairs.
The second bill, approved late on Monday, sets up an independent body overseeing press coverage and dealing with any complaints, said Baptist, adding that both bills would be sent this week to President Salva Kiir for his signature.
"The bills are very, very important to the development of journalism in South Sudan," said Alfred Taban, editor of the daily Juba Monitor who was detained in May for running a report accusing a deputy minister of killing a police officer.
Taban said the new media body would deal with any future complaints, not the police as previously.
Other journalists struck a more cautious note.
"It’s definitely a step forward but we have to see...whether the security forces respect the new media authority," said one senior journalist who asked not to be identified.
Also, South Sudan’s court system is notoriously inefficient as few laws have been approved yet and judges still need to be trained.
Last month, authorities in a central region of the country suspended a Catholic radio station for several days after it investigated the suspicious death of a prisoner.
This year, South Sudan slipped 13 places to 124 out of 179 countries on a press freedom index compiled by the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.