The Sudanese public has access to several high-profile independent newspapers that criticize government authorities and policies. But that criticism comes at a price, especially when it relates to the Muslim government’s nearly 20-year-old civil war with Christian and animist rebels in the south of the country.
In early September, the government suspended negotiations that were being held in Machakos, Kenya, with the rebels, and many independent journalists and newspaper editorials criticized the move. Authorities took swift action, detaining columnist Osman Merghani, of the daily Al Rai al-Aam, who had lambasted the Sudanese government’s action on a program broadcast by the Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera. The government also confiscated three independent dailies for their coverage of the controversy: Al-Horiyah, Al-Sahafa, and the English-language Khartoum Monitor. Officials later questioned the papers’ editors.
Sudanese journalists say they have some freedom in their daily reporting and that restrictions, including prior censorship, occur less often today than in previous years. Nonetheless, members of the press maintain that the government’s eagerness to crack down on its critics engenders self-censorship and fear.
The ubiquitous National Press Council (NPC), which includes pro-government journalists, Parliament members, and presidential appointees, enforces Sudan’s harsh press laws and has the power to ban and confiscate publications deemed offensive.
In August, the NPC suspended the independent Al-Ayam for one day after the paper used “explicit” language in a story about female circumcision. The Khartoum Monitor was suspended for two days in November after it ran a story about AIDS that the council deemed “too sexual.” Journalists complain that the suspensions place hefty financial burdens on publications, since they often have already paid printing fees and lose advertising revenue.
Authorities regularly call journalists and tell them not to cover certain topics. Many independent reporters ignore these instructions, often without government reprisal. But in November, officials suspended three independent newspapers, Al-Sahafa, Al-Horiyah, and Al-Watan, for alleging that police had violently dispersed opposition student protesters at Khartoum University the previous month. Authorities questioned the editors of the publications and detained Al-Watan editor Sidahmed Khalifa for three days. Khalifa had held a press conference the day the newspapers were confiscated criticizing the action. He was released without charge.
In January, a Khartoum court ordered Khartoum Monitor editor Nial Bol to pay a
5 million pound (US$2,000) fine after he wrote an article about the slave trade in Sudan. The paper itself was fined 15 million pounds (US$6,000). The court ruled that Bol would have to spend six months in prison if he did not pay. Shortly after the ruling, Bol paid the fine, and he remained free at year’s end.
Osman Merghani, Al Rai al-Aam
Merghani, a columnist for the Khartoum-based daily Al Rai al-Aam, was ordered by authorities to report to the General Security Office, where he was detained. A day earlier, Merghani had appeared on a program on the Qatar-
based satellite channel Al-Jazeera that dealt with the suspension of peace talks between the Sudanese government and rebels. Merghani criticized the government for quitting the negotiations, which are aimed at ending the country’s 20-year-old civil war. Merghani was released without charge on September 5.
The independent, Arabic-language daily Al-Watan was banned by the Internal Security Service. Sources at the paper, which repeatedly came under government pressure in 2002, told CPJ that the ban was issued because of the paper’s coverage of topics considered a threat to state security. Editors at the paper plan to mount a legal challenge, claiming that the order is unconstitutional.
On December 27, the Internal Security service also questioned the editors of two other independent papers, Al-Horiyah and Al-Sahafa, about articles that had appeared in their pages. The two papers did not publish on December 28.