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New Media Bill represents major impediment for media freedom, NUSOJ condemns “harsh” media legislation

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The National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) is deeply concerned about the new media bill which was today endorsed by Somalia’s council of ministers. The effects of the restrictive clauses in the bill are seriously damaging for the media and the right to freedom of expression in the country as the changes introduce undue state interference in media regulation and control over journalists.

“The media bill passed by the Council of Ministers is unconstitutional as it fails to ensure that everyone including journalists and other media practitioners are free from government or political control and interference to impart information in any way. These restrictive clauses must not be allowed to be passed by the federal parliament and then put into practice. Endangered media freedom in Somalia will be seriously damaged if this bill is not reexamined,” said Omar Faruk Osman, NUSOJ Secretary General.

The proposed piece of legislation, which seeks to amend media law 2016, imposes a straitjacket for the regulation of all journalistic and media activity with strict regulatory regime for both print and broadcast media, as well as for individual journalists. Article 4 imposes blanket prohibition on journalists from “false news” and “groundless propaganda”. While the media should strive to provide truthful information, this restriction which is imposed on all journalists will likely end up impeding independent and critical journalism rather than promoting a free media and will allow politicians to exploit and abuse what is the meaning of “false news” and groundless propaganda”.

The Bill’s article 5 creates very punitive measures for journalists and media houses, contrary to recognized regional and international standards for breaching provisions of this draft media law. Journalists and media houses are required to pay hefty fine of between $300 to $1500 when an average working journalist do not even earn more than $150 a month, and failure to pay this fine journalist will be prosecuted at court with possibility to go to jail. The exorbitant fines imposed on poorly remunerated journalists and media houses, followed by prison term are punitive and outrageous as they are a backdoor insertion of damages for defamation, and criminalization of journalism.

Articles 8, 9 and 16 of the media bill propose permission, licensing and registration for all media including the print and online media. The requirement that all newspapers and news websites should be licensed or registered is draconian and negates international standards, and must be removed altogether from the media bill. Vaguely worded conditions such as requirement of financial capacity of the person establishing media house can be used as preventive tool and is susceptible to deny someone the constitutional right that instructs “every person has the right ….to receive and impart their opinion, information and ideas in any way.”.

The draft media law fails to distinguish between different types of media, treating broadcast media, all print and internet, subjecting them to the same levels and method of regulation. Internationally accepted standards require distinction between different types of media when it comes to regulating.

The media bill establishes statutory media regulatory body – Somali Media Commission (SMC). While the union’s long standing position is that statutory media regulatory body is unnecessary and inappropriate, the bill undermines the independence of SMC because there is no independent appointment of members of the commission as the ultimate decision for selecting members of SMC rests with the government. The Minister of Information is empowered to present nomination of 9 members of the commission to the council of ministers, and following the council’s approval the President of the republic will be appointing them by decree.

The media legislation, under article 18, obligates anyone who wants to practice journalism to be registered and their registration file kept at the Federal Ministry of Information or Regional Ministries of Information, who shall the authority to give journalists’ identification card. This legal power is a political tool, that can be used to prevent critical or independent journalists from working. For this reason, and simply because the right to express oneself through the media belongs to everyone, irrespective of qualifications, registration scheme for journalists is in blatant breach of the right to freedom of expression.

The Media Bill, as passed by the council of Ministers today, creates unjustifiable restrictions on the practice of journalism by prescribing minimal period for someone to be in the profession in order to qualify as a journalist. Article 35 prescribes that a journalist is anyone who possess professional qualification of journalism or someone who has been practicing journalism profession for 2 years and more. NUSOJ insists that journalism is an open profession. There should be no substantive requirements for entry to the profession, whether they be educational, academic or relating to length of experience.

“The Media Bill, if enacted in the form that it was passed by the Council of Ministers, would endanger the independence of the media, stifle journalists’ freedom, impinge on the free flow of information and grossly violate the right to freedom of expression as stated in Article 18 of the provisional constitution of Somalia, and as elaborated by international and regional laws” added Osman.

The union is very concerned that the federal government, through this piece of legislature, is empowering the Federal Ministry of Information to establish responsibilities and rules specifically to bind media professionals such as code of conduct or ethics, as stipulated in article 25 of the media bill. Government must not have any role in formulating or establishing ethical or professional standards for journalists, and NUSOJ insists that the Media Bill should not specify ethical obligations for the media, or create enforcement mechanisms for those standards or sanctions.

NUSOJ expressly calls on the Federal Government of Somalia to respect its obligations under the provisional constitution of the country and the international law, and to abandon the oppressive provisions of the Media Bill.

Many provisions in the Law are phrased in broad, imprecise or vague terms. The Media Bill needs to be re-drafted so that it is legally precise, easily understandable and accessible to the journalists and the wider public in all regions of Somalia.