Thursday, December 18, 2014

Press freedom in Sudan

Sudan regularly makes headlines for allegations of human rights abuses against various groups: women, Christians, non-Arab ethnic groups and activists – silencing any voice of dissent.  But it seems even reporting on these sensitive cases can land journalists, editors, and printing houses in hot water. The once strong media - particularly newspapers - have been bearing the brunt of this crackdown. 

This is likely because dissemination of information through newspapers has been less easy to control than say television channels that could be turned off air. It is no surprise then that Sudan falls in Freedom House’s 2014 cohort of ‘the worst of the worst scoring a maximum 7 out of 7  for lack of freedom, civil liberties and political rights, characterising it as a whole as ‘Not free’. But even without the criteria of a western centre-right think tank, Sudan has experienced a marked restriction in its media and broadcasting freedom.   These restrictions have become more overt in the past 18 months, months that saw the makings of the first wide-spread, public resistance to President Bashir’s government which has been in power for almost 24 years.

There was, for a short time at least, a period of increased liberty with press freedoms firmly enshrined in the 2005 Interim Constitution.  However, in those post-CPA days there was much international attention on Sudan and a larger non-Muslim, non-‘Arab’ identifying minority. This minority, given something of a voice through the legitimisation of the rebel SPLM by the peace process, allowed for a space to be carved for airing longstanding concerns of the many.

Thus that space made way for a proliferation of online blogs, forums and news sites that could – for the first time – contain open discussion of government attitudes and behaviour. The press fared well too, coming out of the shadow of censorship for a while. Since then the 2009 Press and Publication Act has allowed the government-appointed Press Council to prevent publication or broadcast of material it deems unsuitable, authorising it to temporarily shut down newspapers, and impose heavy fines for violations of media regulations.

The secession of the South too has enabled Sudan to fall once more into the world’s shadow, giving less impetus for the Government of Sudan to honour the spirit of that constitution.  In the meantime a lack of consensus on a new permanent constitution has left it in ‘draft’ for a considerable length of time and press freedom in a state of limbo.

Mass censorship, increase in security apparatus presence in press houses and newspaper headquarters as well as editorial censorship by National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) are commonplace. Press staff are being detained, sometimes in solitary confinement as with the case of Amal Habani[1].  Some have been interrogated and in some cases tortured – while confiscation of private effects, laptops and mobile phones is a frequent occurrence. Newspaper offices and printing houses are routinely shut down or suspended and/or fined heavily if they are suspected of contravening the 2009 Act or if cross certain ‘red lines’.  These lines pertain mostly to security issues, news or discussion of the war in Darfur and particularly the conflict in The Two Areas of Blue Nile and South Kordofan.


Unlike its neighbours to the north, Egypt and Libya, Sudan has had two successful revolutions in the past 50 years – in 1964 and 1985.  Last year’s attempt in September however paled in comparison to those abroad, failing to reach a critical mass of demonstrators and to capture the imagination of elite politicians. There have been numerous theories as to why this was and continues to be the young activists fight, but the consequences of a restricted media may play a very large part.

During the protest the sanction on the media intensified with international news channels being blocked, three newspapers ordered to cease publication and the most-widely read newspaper Al-Intibaha closed for a month for refusing to tow the government line. The internet, key for coordinating protests but also for following events and accessing news internationally was jammed or shut down on several occasions during the fortnight of protest. 

Government-endorsed papers and state-controlled television branded the protestors as rioters and criminals - no doubt to discourage others from joining in and to justify what most saw as a disproportionate use of force against mainly young demonstrators. Newspaper staff also seemed to be targeted for arrest, with an on-line journalist of Al-Taghyeer publication arrested at a funeral of a protestor.  He was detained for 8 days. Foreign media organizations were not spared either.  Following accusations that they attempted to whip protestors up into an Arab-Spring style uprising, the Khartoum offices of Sky and Al-Arabiya had their Khartoum offices closed and their licenses momentarily suspended.

On the first anniversary of the September 2013 protest, printing press owner Rashid Shikaldeen Abash, was detained for printing flyers to commemorate those who died in the September 2013 protests. Fearing a resurgence of popular uprising the government also confiscated copies of daily newspaper Al-Jareeda with its editor claiming that members of security apparatus regularly act as ‘chief editors’ deciding which articles were suitable for print.

Long-term repercussions

With the personal toll for journalists so high many have been forced to sensor themselves or leave altogether for fear of harassment and intimidation of their families. This inadvertently serves to reduce the ranks of those who would defy the censors and does not bode well for any fledgling democracy. For some journalists however the discussion on press freedom and censorship goes beyond personal safety and speaks to the professional rigour of their sector. Total censorship of the press also extends to potential sources within government, governing their conduct when dealing with the press.  This makes verifying facts and cultivating sources within the government very difficult and fines resulting from breaching the laws very lucrative.

Activists from within Sudan as well as abroad often criticize those living particularly in Khartoum of wilful ignorance of events within their country.  The rise in press censorship has undoubtedly contributed to this. This is compounded by a high level of illiteracy and low usage of electronic technology preventing many from reading between the lines of censored reports or accessing non government-controlled broadcasts and publications.

This increased mass censorship is symptomatic of the closing-in of the executive branch, both within itself and around its territory.  The state consolidation process, in full swing after the 2011 secession of South Sudan has, predictably, hit several bumps on the road.  With continued conflict in the four corners of Sudan and little information getting through many are now turning to social media for their news.  But the mobile generation seems to be restricted to the urban elite and those in their environs.  Smart phones have seen a marked increase in usage but that has not permeated to the political and geographical peripheries, further alienating the centre from the frontier states, where currently most of the violent conflict is taking place. The government of Sudan has been accused before of using divide and rule tactics to consolidate its power but with next year’s election getting closer, it is unlikely that the media blackout will lift soon.

[1] Amal Habani, a journalist, has been arrested 7 times.  Last year she was arrested at the 2013 protests and detained for 10 days, 3 of which she spent in solitary confinement.  She was released without charge by a presidential pardon but warned against reporting on ‘sensitive’ topics.

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