Minister Luk Confusing Issues on Media Legislation

"Public Broadcasting is exactly what it says: Public Broadcasting; not Government’s Broadcasting"

By Jacob J Akol

In a press conference earlier this week at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Minister, John Luk Joak, is reported to have wondered what the Ministry of Information would be doing if they were not responsible for Public Broadcasting. It would not be the first time the minister broached the subject. He made the same statement in a meeting I attended in his office in December last year. My immediate response was: “Abolish it!”

In this week’s conference, he is reported to have made a reference to the fact that many democracies in the west do not have a ministry of information; but quickly added that such a decision to have no ministry of information in South Sudan has not yet been made. Fine, but what exactly is the issue?

The issue is an attempt to come up with a media legislation that assigns control of media licensing as well as public service broadcasting roles to a government ministry of information. In both cases, there are valid arguments against such an assignment of the roles which, under a government, often end up in both censoring, charging unjustifiable registration fees, harassing or threatening any media unfavourable to the government of the day with either withdrawing of license or refusal to renew.

Minister John Luk at press conference in Juba this week
In the licensing case – when and where necessary - the role would be wrongly assigned to the said government’s ministry of information. When and where is a licence necessary for a media entity? In a democracy, where freedom of expression within the law is guaranteed, printed or broadcast opinions are just as good in law as verbal opinions expressed in private or in public places. Just because someone has published such an opinion in a written or verbal form and published in a regular publication or broadcaster is not a good enough reason for registering a publication.

The reason for registering a daily publication or periodical is for commercial/business reasons only - and thus taxation in case it makes profit – not because it is going to criticise or contradict government’s policies, mislead the public or insult, or wrongly accuse a government’s minister or president of corruption “without evidence”. Such things are happening all the time in any case!
 

But transgressions by any publication are the province of a court of law to which a wronged  party can resort for necessary damages which are defined by law. That is the meaning of “The Rule of Law”.

And at the risk of being told “ha! but this is not Britain”, I can register Gurtong Media as a business in a couple of minutes over the internet in my house in UK. All I need to do is give an address and at least two shareholders on a provided form and I immediately receive my license over the net to practice in United Kingdom. The two shares or more will also be attached to download. The financing companies like the banks would immediately spot a newly registered company and they will compete to do business with Gurtong by offering a business bank account and professional assistance, including loans, should the company need or warent it.

Why is it made so easy? Because any business and self-employed individuals is good for Britain. A new company may provide employment to immediate owners and others. It may be able to pay tax too. Should Gurtong do something illegal, it would be up to the law to deal with it. Here we seem to compensate lack of clear laws with establishment of some unnecessary government ministries, thus complicating governance even further.

Where licensing is necessary is broadcasting (both radio and television) for reasons of airwaves and spectrum control. These are limited resources; without proper control and fair allocation, the airwaves could become a mess, thus making it impossible to listen to radio or view any clear television screen. Such technical and fair allocation of airwaves and spectrum are not necessarily the business of a government ministry of information. It can be done more effectively and fairly so by an independent technical body.

The other area where confusion seems to come up in Africa as a whole and in South Sudan in particular, is Public Broadcasting. Public Broadcasting is exactly what it says: Public Broadcasting; not Government’s Broadcasting. What is the difference? Whoever asks such a question is either confused or deliberately confusing issues. What is Minister Luk?

Yes, a government may have radio or television or both but in no way should such use of radio and television by a government ministry be confused with a public service broadcaster. Such a broadcaster will focus on the interest of the government of the day, often about “talking heads” of government ministers and president with little, if any, regard to substance or service to the public. Let’s call spade a spade: Such a broadcaster is a government’s propaganda service, not a public service. The government should not waste public resources in the name of a public service broadcaster. I will repeat again, if our government has nothing else to do with the Ministry of Information – “Ministry of Truth” in Orwell’s parody or “Ministry of Propaganda” in controlled “democracies/dictatorships” - let them abolish it!  

An independent public service broadcaster, on the other hand, is governed by an independent (of government of the day) Commission or Council or Board of Governors with clear objectives to serve the public. Such a commission would be headed by distinguished South Sudanese. To think allowed, such a board could include people like retired and highly respected Bishop Paride Taban, distinguished retired politicians, retired generals, academics and even some of our traditional leaders like the King of the Anyuak and the recently crowned king in Zandeland, just to connect to our rural and traditional communities. South Sudan has no shortage of such people if only we care to look beyond our own selves.

And how would they serve the public? All our ethnic communities, large and small, will hear their voices or see their faces on the screen of such a service. Our artists, musicians, sportsmen and women in towns and villages will be featured in such a service. They will sing and dance as well as express their opinions without fear. They would in short become active participants in the production of relevant programmes that meet their needs. Led by accomplished and respected wise men and women of our nation, such a public broadcaster would use our diversity and what is valuable in our cultures as a uniting, rather than a dividing, force. Our children will have their locally produced educational programmes. Same approach could be used for higher education all the way to the universities.

That, in a nutshell, is what a public broadcasting service is all about; not just about what the president or government ministers say, though they are indeed an important source and can be used by such an independent broadcaster as important partners in nation building.

In linking the government’s ministry of information with public service, Minister Luk is either confused himself – which I doubt – or is deliberately confusing his colleagues and everyone else to justify control of the media in general and public service broadcaster in particular by the government – a likely proposition indeed.

While quite a number of our ministers may now applaud Minister Luk and his likeminded colleagues and find fault with this argument against government’s control of the media through registration and through a public service broadcaster as long as they are in power, I feel sure they will appreciate it sooner or later, particularly once they are out of power and or in opposition. With due respect, to his Excellency Luk and company, we should make laws for posterity and not for transient purposes.

Jacob J Akol is Chief Editor of Gurtong Trust – Peace & Media Project (www.gurtong.net). He is also Chairman of the Association for Media Development in South Sudan, AMDISS. 
  
 

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