Posted: 03 Feb 2011 04:54 AM PST
Posted: 03 Feb 2011 04:54 AM PST
JUBA, Sudan (Reuters Life!) - Atem Dut flicked a switch and south Sudan's first modern newspaper printing press whirred into life, raising cautious hopes of new media freedoms in what is expected to be Africa's newest nation.
People from Sudan's oil-producing south overwhelmingly voted to declare independence from the north in a referendum this year, according to early figures. Preliminary results are due out on Sunday.
Now the south's journalists also want to free themselves from decades of publishing restrictions, shutdowns and even imprisonment imposed by the northern government.
Up until January, almost every newspaper in Sudan was printed in Khartoum, where publishers have to comply with Islamic decency laws and sporadic checks by national security. Copies had to be flown or trucked out to other cities.
South Sudan's daily Citizen newspaper broke the mould by switching on its own printing press in the southern capital of Juba on Jan. 9, the day voting started in the week-long secession referendum.
"It was symbolic to print it on that day. It was not just the independence of the Citizen but the independence of the south," said Dut, the paper's copy editor.
"I was excited when we started printing ... Other papers will follow. When we go completely full colour I expect other papers to request to use the printing press."
Southern civil war veteran Joseph Lagu confirmed it was the region's first newspaper printing press. "It is a great achievement," he told Reuters.
The Citizen raised funds to buy the $480,000 press with Western donors helping to pay for its generator.
The change has already had an impact. The paper plans to add revenue with beer adverts, illegal in the Islamic north, and has published more daring political stories especially on the war-torn western Darfur region -- taboo in the north -- since it began printing in the south.
For Dut, it's a refreshing change from Khartoum's restrictions.
"Apart from government censorship there was also a self censorship from journalists in the north because they felt they could be arrested. They understood the Khartoum regime."
But his optimism was also mixed with caution. Southern Sudan also has a far from perfect record when it comes to protecting media freedoms during its years as a semi-autonomous region.
Journalists have reported being harassed or detained during last year's national elections and other periods of political tension. Dut said a southern security agent threatened to arrest him after the Citizen published an article criticising a candidate for one of the state governorships.
Reporters are also nervous that southern leaders have so far failed to pass a media law, leaving them without any cast iron legal protection.
"During the elections I formed my opinion that the media would not be as free as we thought in the south," said Dut.
The Citizen's editor-in-chief Nhial Bol said journalists were unhappy with restrictions in a draft law about reporting on the southern government's corruption -- which has plagued the south since it formed a semi-autonomous government in 2005.
The media law was first proposed in 2006 and Bol said he did not expect it to be passed anytime soon given a conflict over access to public information.
"They took out the (article) which relates to cross-checking private and public institutions. We are opposed to this," Bol said.
Southern security forces briefly closed down the Juba-based Catholic radio station Bakhita FM in March 2010 and detained its head, Sister Cecilia Sierra.
"We don't have media laws so anybody can come and say you are violating the rules but you don't know what the rules are," Sierra said. "If there is interference now then I feel there could be more later."
The security services have been in touch since and agents visited the station twice in January to complain about the political content of shows.
Sierra said she also recently received a letter, describing itself as an "invitation" to attend a meeting with the security service, without giving further explanation. For Sierra, it is an improvement on last year's arrest.
"I am confident in this meeting. It's already an improvement the fact that I have received a letter. The last time I was visited I did not receive a letter so this is a positive sign."
(Editing by Andrew Heavens and Paul Casciato)
Copyright © 2011 Reuters
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