Qatar-based political cartoonist Khalid Al Baih is relieved that he successfully managed to escape Sudan amidst the June revolts.
As news were spreading that a possible “Sudan Spring” was unravelling, Al Baih could not stay away from what could become a revolution. As an observer, he tweeted from the protests on the bad treatment of journalists, their arrest, and sometimes, their deportation.
Around 1,000 activists and demonstrators have been arrested so far and hundred others were injured in political protests that have swept the nation.
The latest wave of protests started on June 16 sparked by the recently announced austerity measures in the country. Anti-regime demonstrations that began on Jan 30, 2011 died down due to Sudan's separation later in the year but the more recent ones are holding strong despite a heavy crackdown on media and activists.
"The security police is scared of the media the most," said Al Baih, who stayed in Khartoum for eight days.
"The very first Friday I got there, I went down to attend the protests and I was trying to take pictures and my friends continuously stopped me. The moment I held out my IPhone up in the air to take a picture, out of nowhere the riot police appeared and shot tear gas right at me, straight into my eyes!," he exclaimed.
But Al Baih considers his experience to be one of the safest because his friends faced severe consequences of speaking up against the government or even for simply attending protests.
Prominent Sudanese blogger Usamah Mohammed was soon arrested after appearing on Al Jazeera Stream. The tweetosphere flooded with news about his disappearance and called to #FreeUsama. It has been around 13 days since arrest but no one is aware of his whereabouts.
Al Baih recounts that when his friend got detained, his friend's brother visited the police to inquire about the detention. In response, his brother was brutally beaten up and sent home. When his family posted pictures of his bruised body on Facebook and other social networking websites, the police showed up at their door step and demanded to take down the photos or find Mohammed's brother dead.
"The National Security and Intelligence Services (NISS) have a force of 'electronic jihadists'' who are constantly keeping a track of what is being posted on the social networking websites and who is really active," said Al Baih.
Authorities crack down on opponents
"You can't protect yourself from the police. They are arresting people from their homes in the middle of the night," said another activist who wants to remain anonymous and is currently in hiding but still active on social networking websites. "After my release my family and I have been threatened by the NISS to stop all activity."
Most of these detainees round up in 'ghost houses' since no one knows their location and are kept there for an uncertain number of days with no contact from the outside world and are reported to be brutally tortured.
Another prominent female activist who was detained told the Doha Centre for Media Freedom that "the method of treatment for each detainee varies depending on their role, for example, leaders and mobilizers are subjected to physical torture among other maltreatment. The rest are emotionally abused, threatened, blackmailed and denied of food and water."
Censored Press- traditional media vs. social media
Even though the outside world is getting most of their updates through #Sudanrevolts or other social networking websites, but some local journalists believe that the social media has an insignificant role within Sudan.
"Inside Khartoum and other areas people still use traditional media such as newspaper, radio and TV to get informed because people do not have access to Internet. They cannot afford it," said Hildebrand Bijleveld, director of Radio Dabanga, a private radio station with an outreach of 1.2 million people per day.
"Social media, whether its Facebook or Twitter is meant to engage and inform the Sudanese diaspora and the international community but it does not have an impact in influencing politics within the country," he added.
But within the recent weeks, the Sudanese government has been heavily cracking down on print and audiovisual media in the country.
"Seven newspapers have been completely blocked since the protests started and two are under complete censorship," Bikleveld said to DCMF. "Before they go for print, these two newspapers are checked by the NISS and their headlines are changed and they are heavily edited before they are put out," said Bijleveld
Earlier this year, DCMF released a report analysing the press freedom in Sudan such that “in all cases, confiscation is performed immediately after printing, in order to inflict the largest amount of material loss for the publisher,” said the report. “This confirms that there is an organised campaign aimed at silencing all voices of opposition to the regime.”
Many young men and women that DCMF spoke to complained about the lack of objectivity within the Sudanese media. "Our only choice is spreading the word through social media because traditional media is unable to do it," said an activist.
"When protests were happening in all corners of the country, our state TV was showing nothing but some interviews and song and dance," said Al Baih.
The latest crackdown on media has not only affected local journalists but also several international journalists as well.
Salma El Wardany, a correspondent for international news wire Bloomberg, was deported by Sudanese authorities after being detained while trying to cover the country's widening protest movement.
Another case of targeting international journalists came into light when AFP correspondent, Simon Martelli, was interrogated for 12 hours by the NISS and released without charge. Also AFP bureau in Khartoum was raided and a freelance photographer was arrested and held in custody for almost 24 hours.
Two agents, one of them wielding a pistol, seized Talal Sadd, a freelance photographer, from AFP’s office after he arrived with pictures he had taken of an anti-regime protest in Khartoum's twin city of Omdurman.
The end of an era?
Despite the arrests and heavy crackdown people are still continuing with protests and trying to get as many pictures, videos and stories out to the international media.
“We are fed up with 23 years of dictatorship regime. We want our freedom back,” said Hamid Khalafallah, an activist who was detained in last year’s protests.
“We try to share information through safe circles because we are being watched the entire time. The police knows everything, they are everywhere,” he added.
Phone lines are being constantly monitored and many fear that their only source of spreading news will soon come under attack.
“Internet hasn’t been shut down yet but we are expecting it anytime soon,” explained Khalafallah.
More than 100 Sudanese journalists gathered in front of Sudan’s Human Rights Commission office on July 4, 2012 to protest against censorship and other media restrictions.
According to DCMF, in 2011 more than 20 newspapers were closed or suspended, at least 10 journalists were detained and tortured, and up to 12 reporters and other media contributors received court summonses or were subject to judicial investigations. But the recent events have showed that this will not stop people's fight for a free press in Sudan.