Press freedoms in Sudan continue to face serious threat. Sudan has one of the most restrictive media environments on the African continent. With a high record of violations of freedom of expression, security forces routinely confiscate newspaper copies containing articles covering sensitive issues or deemed critical of the government. Most International human rights organizations describe Sudan as a place where freedom of speech is seriously violated.
The crackdown on reporters and activists is part of a larger anti-media trend that has escalated in the first quarter of 2012. Newspapers have been seized and confiscated at an alarming rate. Al-Midan has been seized five times in March alone, and 10 times since January. Al-Jareeda was confiscated twice during the first quarter of the year. Other publications such as Al-Ahdath, Al-Youm Al-Tali, Al-Shahid and Al-Tayyar have all been 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 criticizing the regime or revealing the files relating to corruption of the regime’s powerful men.
Sudanese journalists are more frequent targets of the authorities, whose intelligence service has a reputation for visiting newspapers at night to demand that articles be removed, or barring their distribution altogether. Sudanese journalists say they face pressure and harassment by security forces when covering sensitive issues such as corruption or severe economic crisis experienced by the Sudan.
Newspaper confiscations continue
The seizure of newspapers by Sudanese authorities is one of the things that were repeatedly performed in the first quarter of 2012 using the same method of confiscation immediately after printing. This shows the policy adopted by the Sudanese authorities to crack down on the newspapers: confiscation and denial of communication with readers is not enough, but also incurring high material losses in printing costs.
Rai Al-Sha’ab Newspaper, linked to the Popular Congress Party (PCP), was closed by the National and Intelligence Security Service (NISS) on Monday afternoon, January 2nd. Fifteen thousand copies of the newspaper were seized and the journalists were asked to leave the building. Security forces told staff that publication would be halted and the paper's assets confiscated. No explanation was given for the closure or confiscation. Known for its outspoken editorials and uncompromising journalism, the newspaper has been suspended many times in recent years, most recently from May 2010 to October 2011.
Journalists are being targetted
Foreign journalists have also come under pressure. Mathieu Galtier, a French freelance reporter, and his colleague Maryline Dumas, also a freelance correspondent, were expelled by the Khartoum government but that their departure was blocked because they had no exit visa. In fact, they were no longer welcomed because of their coverage early January 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.
At 10:40 Friday evening, January 6th, a police force composed of five officers and a number of policemen raided the home of the blogger and activist Najla Syed Ahmed in Khartoum, Sudan. The force intimidated Najla and her three young children while her husband was away. At gunpoint, the force searched the house and confiscated 3 laptops, a PC desktop, two cameras, seven flash items and templates, as well as media equipment and some private writings. This raid comes just few days after the closure and seizure of the property of the Sudanese Rai Al-Sha’ab Newspaper by the National and Intelligence Security Service (NISS).
The director-general of NISS issued the resolution no. (2) 2012, confiscating all the assets and property of Alwan newspaper owned by Alwan printing and publishing company. The decision applied as of Thursday, 12th January. According to security sources, the decision was issued according to Articles 24 and 25-d of the National Security Act of 2010, which empowers the director-general to stop and seize any publication which is threatening national security.
It is believed that the procedure was a result of an interview run by the paper on Wednesday 11th Jan. with Dr. Lubabah Al-Fadli in which she criticized the performance of the security service. Hussein Khojali, editor of Alwan, said that the Sudanese security forces had closed his paper and occupied the premises, in a strong indication of measures to suppress the media. Two journalists for Alwan, Mujahid Abdullah and Essam Jaafar, were banned from writing for any Sudanese newspaper. NISS told the editor-in-chief of Alwan newspaper that they were unhappy with the publication and its journalists, a few weeks prior to the raid. Alwan and Rai Al Sha'b, used to report in a positive light about Khalil Ibrahim, the leader of the Darfur rebel movement, the Justice and Equality Movement, who was killed last year, according to reports.
On Saturday, January 14th, the security authorities arrested the blogger and political activist Dr. Mariam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi when she was on her way to Damer to advocate for Manaseer tribesmen, who were demonstrating against the confiscation of their lands by the government. The Security Service impeded the delegation of Dr. Al-Mahdi in the city of Shendi, and blocked their way to Damer. The forces ordered the delegation to return to Khartoum. Dr. Mariam Al-Mahdi refused to obey their orders, and the delegation was forced to go to the security offices in Shendi where they were detained with their vehicle.
In the early hours of Sunday, January 29th, the security services confiscated the independent newspaper Al-Jarida after it has been printed. In a statement issued the same day, Al-Jarida spokesman said, “without mentioning any reasons, the security services detained the issues of the paper early Sunday morning without giving any reasons”. Editor-in-chief of Al-Jarida said that NISS confiscated the paper and stopped its distribution immediately after printing. An officer from NISS came to the premises of the newspaper, waited until the paper was completely printed and then confiscated all copies without giving any reasons, he said.
The information traded among journalists point out that the main reason behind the confiscation of Al-Jarida is exercising pressure on the management of the newspaper and its publisher to expel Mr. Salah-el-Din Awoodah who was rejected by the security forces as an editor due to his independent attitudes. NISS had previously ordered the expulsion of all democratic writers and journalists who joined AL-Jarida after the suspension of their paper Ajras Al-Huriya on 8th July 2011. NISS had stopped the publication of Al-Jarida and confiscated its properties in September 2011, but allowed its publication early in January 2012.
Protests are happening, but reporting them is difficult
The Sudanese Journalists Network (SJN) organized a protest at noon on Tuesday, February 7th in front of the buildings of the Press and Publication Council (PPC). Crowds of reporters stood there for an hour, carrying posters and banners denouncing the confiscation of Alwan and Rai Al-Shaab newspapers, the oppression of media freedoms in Sudan and the authority granted to NISS to stop and confiscate newspapers. An SJN representative gave a statement in line with these meanings and handed it over to the representative of NCP in the presence of the media. NISS prevented the publishing of any news in the Sudanese press about this statement.
On Monday 20th February, two Sudanese newspapers were confiscated by the NISS. Editions of both Al-Tayyar and Al-Youm Al-Tali newspapers were confiscated immediately after printing. NISS accused Al Tayyar, a private daily newspaper, of destabilizing national security.
Al-Tayyar newspaper editor in chief Osman Mirghani said security agents arrived after midnight at the newspaper’s offices in Khartoum and seized the entire Monday edition after it had been printed.
Reasons for confiscation have not been mentioned, but speculations say that Al-Tayyar newspaper was confiscated because it has been recently publishing documentation related to a corruption scandal in the government-owned Cotton Company. Other speculations say that the two papers were confiscated because they published the allegations of Dr. Hassan Al-Turabi leader of PCP against NISS.
Turabi had accused the security forces at a press conference in Khartoum on 21st February of wire tapping his office and showed journalists some of the listening devices he found. But the government denied any involvement in this. The officers responsible for monitoring newspapers verbally ordered the newspapers not to publish Turabi’s allegations but Al-Tayyar and Al-Youm Al-Tali disregarded the instructions and included it in their Monday’s editions.
Around 20 reporters of Al-Tayyar protested the next day against the confiscation in front of the PPC which is in charge of licensing newspapers. "Al-Tayar has not collapsed yet," read one banner. On Wednesday 22nd Feb., authorities suspended for an indefinite period of time the publication of Al-Tayyar.
Three papers, Al-Maidan, Al-Yum Al-Tali and Al-Ahdath were confiscated on Tuesday 21st Feb. from the printing press after they had been printed in full. That day, Al-Maidan main news item was the assault of the security forces on a female doctor in Omdurman. Al Midan is a thrice-weekly publication of the communist opposition in Sudan. it was confiscated at least eight times last year for reporting on violence in the Blue Nile and South Kordufan regions and also about the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM-N). It has repeatedly refused to pander to censorship and had recently published articles related to alleged police abuses, including the alleged killing of a girl, by police, as she protested.
International human rights groups are worried
The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), based in Cairo, issued a statement on February 26th, pointing out that the Sudanese authorities has adopted the policy of confiscation of newspapers in preparation for finally closing them if they continue criticizing the regime or revealing corruption. That is what happened before with Alwan and Rai Al-Shaab newspapers which were closed early in January 2012. In all cases, confiscation is performed immediately after printing, in order to inflict the largest amount of material loss for the publisher, a style which has been repeatedly done. This confirms that there is an organized campaign aimed at silencing all voices of opposition to the regime. ANHRI said, "The Sudanese regime is waging a repressive campaign against the press freedoms and acts in hostility against any voice calling for reform or change, or revealing corruption". ANHRI added, "The Sudanese journalists are working under extremely difficult circumstances and they are subject to imprisonment or loss of employment at any time." ANHRI called on international organizations to constantly and effectively stress on the regime to ensure media freedom, and to protect freedom of opinion and expression.
On March 18th and 20th, the security authorities seized the entire print-run of Al-Midan newspaper, thus bringing the confiscations to five times in March alone, and 10 times since January. A week earlier, the security forces had seized two of Al-Midan’s editions, accusing it of ignoring orders to avoid reporting on the case of a girl killed by police. Twelve issues were confiscated after they had been printed during the first quarter of this year.
On Tuesday March 27th, NISS confiscated Al-Jarida newspaper from the printing press, in execution to its threat to confiscate the paper if not abiding to its decision to stop the journalist Zuhair Al-Sarraj from writing. The management of Al-Jarida decided to suspend publication of the newspaper on Wednesday March 28th in protest to confiscation and barring 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.
Finding new ways to curb expression
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 criticize the authorities, under the guise of "spreading false information", "defamation" or even "disturbing public order", which can lead to self-censorship. This is done without official court orders but under the pretext of preserving national security. The current press laws are flawed as they give the NISS a lot of authority but they are against the constitution and against the obligations of Sudan under international human rights law. Pre-publication censorship has been going on for years. 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 are pursuing a new strategy and that they phone the editors-in-chief of the newspapers every evening and tell them not to publish a word on certain issues, or 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.
The NISS officers often wait until the newspaper has been printed and then they review it, so when an article is not approved all copies of the newspaper are confiscated. None of the newspaper can be circulated, resulting in a large financial loss. As a result, newspapers such as Al Midan and Al Ayyam are facing great financial difficulties to print their issues due to financial problems and are forced to close.
Further, newspapers must apply to obtain a license to print from the PPC, which is state-run. Even journalists must pass an exam by the PPC and then be registered to work on the profession. Many journalists have been forced to censor themselves as they need to earn a living, which they could only do if the newspapers are published and circulated.
It is a pity that repressive practices against media freedom in Sudan during the first quarter of 2012 have tremendously escalated. In spite of all local and international calls and appeals, it is obvious that the Sudanese authorities do not respect freedom of opinion and expression enacted in the Transitional Constitution of 2005 and in all international treaties ratified by the Sudan. Whenever they are dissatisfied with critical opinions, they practice all sorts of repression to silence such opinions.
As a result, Sudan has one of the most restrictive media environments on the African continent. It has been ranked among the world’s 10 worst countries with regards to media freedom in the 2011-2012 Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders. Results published as part of UNESCO 2011 World Press Freedom Day, Sudan ranks as 40 out of 48 in Sub-Saharan Africa for press freedom.