“United Against the New Law” and “Free Press or No Press,” read banners held up by demonstrators who say the bill empowers Sudan’s press council to ban any journalist for an indefinite period if his writings oppose government policies.
The cabinet led by Prime Minister Bakri Hassan Saleh is examining the draft, which if passed would go to parliament for a final approval.
“The new law threatens the freedom of the press, and so we outright reject it,” said Sadeq al-Rizeigat, head of the Sudan Journalists’ Syndicate.
The new legislation would also allow the press council to ban a newspaper from publishing for 15 days without any court order, he said.
Sudan’s existing press law requires the council to file for a court order if it wants to ban a newspaper for more than three days.
The proposed law is a “punishment” for journalists, who already operate in a restrictive environment, said prominent columnist Faisal Saleh.
“The press council has been given the right to cancel licences of journalists and newspapers… It shows that the government is angry with the media.”
The National Council for Press and Publications (NCPP), the regulatory body supervised by President Omar al-Bashir himself, defended the draft law.
“We believe that the proposed law actually enhances press freedom,” said Abdelazim Awad, its secretary general.
“We believe that with freedom of expression also comes a sense of responsibility, and the new law aims to protect the people.”
The proposed law would replace existing legislation that was adopted in 2009. Parliament refused to approve a previous bid in 2013 to replace the law.
“Sudanese media is already dying at the moment and the proposed new law will simply kill it,” said Osman Mirghani, editor of the independent Al-Tayar newspaper.
“The most dangerous element is to give the council the right to cancel the licence of a newspaper,” said Mirghani, who is regularly targeted for speaking out against the authorities and over corruption scandals his paper has exposed.
Sudanese authorities maintain a tight grip on the media.
The country’s powerful National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) often confiscates entire print-runs of newspapers without giving a reason, particularly when they publish articles opposing government policies.
Arbitrary arrests and detention of journalists are common in Sudan, and access for journalists is tightly restricted to large parts of the country — mainly conflict zones like Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan states.
Global rights groups have often accused NISS of detaining journalists, human rights workers and opposition politicians.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Sudan 174th out of 180 countries on its 2017 world press freedom index, charging that the NISS “hounds journalists and censors the print media”.