The seizure of newspapers in Sudan, attacks on journalists and enforcement of measures to limit information are weakening the prospect of press freedom in the African nation, the Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF) Emergency Assistance team has warned.
In the first quarterly review of 2012, DCMF Emergency Assistance senior coordinator Ole Chavannes said the suppression of newspapers in terms of confiscation and closure has been happening at an “alarming rate”. The report cited Al-Midan which was seized five times in March alone, Al-Jareeda, confiscated twice in the first three months of the year and Al-Ahdath, Al-Youm, Al-Tali, Al-Tayyar, all confiscated once. Three newspapers, Alwan, Al-Tayyar and Rai Al-Shaab, were closed.
“The authorities adopt the policy of confiscating newspapers in preparation for finally closing them if they continue criticising the regime, or revealing the files relating to corruption of the regime’s powerful men,” said the report. “Sudan has one of the most restrictive media environments on the African continent.”
Journalists under pressure
Journalists are also under pressure. In January, the Khartoum government ordered French freelance correspondents Mathieu Galtier and Maryline Dumas to leave, blaming a visa problem.
“In fact,” said the report “they were no longer welcome because of their coverage of a university protest, as well as Galtier's article from Kassala state about tensions in the country's east. Galtier and Dumas were detained by security agents when they interviewed and photographed student protesters at Khartoum University.”
In the same month, police raided the home of the blogger and activist Najla Syed Ahmed, a mother of three, at gunpoint in Khartoum. They confiscated media equipment and her writing.
(Najla Syed Ahmed pictured. Photo courtesy Sudaneseonline.com)
Protesting against press freedom violations
But refusing to capitulate at the regime’s heavy hands, Sudan’s journalists do fight back. On February 7, for instance, the Sudanese Journalists Network organised a protest outside the Press and Publication Council. Placards were thrust in the air, calling for the denunciation of newspaper confiscations. At the end of the event, the group of journalists, under the banner of the Network, made a statement to the ruling National Congress Party. The National and Intelligence Security Service (NISS) later banned the media from publishing that statement.
“In all cases, confiscation is performed immediately after printing, in order to inflict the largest amount of material loss for the publisher,” said the DCMF report. “This confirms that there is an organised campaign aimed at silencing all voices of opposition to the regime.”
Recently, there’s been little sign of improvement.
It’s been less than one month since the NISS confiscated the Al-Jarida newspaper, a punishment to try and get one of its journalists, Zuhair Al-Sarraj, from writing.
“Now it is a practice of the security officers to order newspaper editors, or their representatives, to sign every evening a pledge not to publish censored materials anywhere, especially on websites,” the report explained. “The practices of NISS towards the freedom of expression in Sudan during the first quarter of 2012 are not encouraging. Although there is a Press Act in Sudan which is supposed to guarantee freedom of expression, there are also articles within the Act which are often used to restrict press freedom. Journalists can easily be arrested, detained or fined, and newspapers can swiftly be confiscated or closed if they write about corruption or criticise the authorities, under the guise of ‘spreading false information’, ‘defamation’ or even ‘disturbing public order’, which can lead to self-censorship.”
Finding new ways to curb expression
Sudan’s flawed press laws give too much power the NISS and violate the obligations of the country under international human rights laws.
While censorship in the media is not new in Sudan, the DCMF Emergency Assistance report warns that the crackdown is getting worse and new methods of suppression are being explored.
“Pre-publication censorship has been going on for years,” it said. “Every article in a newspaper must be approved by the NISS before it can be circulated. Security agents would go to the offices of the newspaper and review the paper with the editor-in-chief. They would demand that certain articles be replaced if they covered sensitive topics, but alternative material was often also rejected. In some cases, such as with Al Midan, so many articles were removed that the newspaper could not be published.
“Now, the NISS is pursuing a new strategy…They phone the editors-in-chief of the newspapers every evening and tell them not to publish a word on certain issues, otherwise the edition will be confiscated and the newspaper closed. They also give them a new list of 'red lines' that they are not allowed to report on. Those red lines include human rights abuses, corruption, the ICC, problems in Darfur and army movements.”