Rebel leaders and the Sudanese government moved closer in 2003 to an agreement to end their bloody 20-year civil war. Over the years, the government's main concern regarding the media has been to control what is written about the war. Negative accounts of the government's role in the conflict can result in an array of punishments under the country's restrictive press law. Journalists covering the conflict have had to contend with pressures from government security officials, who have made harassing phone calls, detained journalists, and confiscated publications.
According to local journalists, the government still objects to negative portrayals of the military. However, in August, President Omar al-Bashir announced an end to secu-rity censorship--which means that the security services can no longer question journalists, confiscate publications, or direct newspaper coverage, though they can ask prosecutors to sanction the media. Since this announcement, the daily opinion pages have become livelier. Journalists now regularly conduct interviews with the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) leader John Garang. The press also regularly interviews Dr. Hasan al-Turabi, an ex-Parliament speaker and former close ally of the president who was released from house arrest in October. Al-Turabi was arrested on charges of committing crimes against the state in 2001 because he negotiated with the SPLA.
Enforcement of the press law is mainly the responsibility of a government agency called the National Press Council (NPC). Over the years, the NPC has usually punished press law violators by suspending the offending newspaper for a few days. Newspapers can be suspended for anything from criticizing the government to publishing articles considered harmful to public morals. The NPC is composed of journalists, Parliament members, and presidential appointees.
The English-language Khartoum Monitor, a small-circulation daily that has frequently endured government pressure, was not spared in 2003. In March, the security services briefly detained Khartoum Monitor reporter Edward Lado Terso for an article he had written claiming that the history of Islam in Sudan was not always peaceful.
Two months later, a Khartoum criminal court suspended the Khartoum Monitor for two months. The paper was originally charged with inciting hatred by allegedly misquoting the Quran, said Nhial Bol, the paper's editor. But during the trial, the judge produced a document that purported to prove that the Monitor had not paid a fine levied on it by a court in January 2002. Bol said an appeals court had overturned the fine. Following the court's decision to suspend the paper, Bol received a letter from the NPC claiming that the suspension was due to the original charge of misquoting the Quran.
The day after the Monitor reopened in July, another Khartoum criminal court suspended the paper's license because it had allegedly published false information. The charges stemmed from a series of articles about the existence of slavery in southern Sudan. In late August, an appeals court rescinded the suspension ruling, but before the paper could reopen, the prosecutor for crimes against the state interjected and ordered that the paper remain closed while he investigated the publication for what he called threats to national stability. The prosecutor general intervened in October and allowed the Monitor to reopen and resume publishing. In late November, however, the prosecutor for crimes against the state reimposed the suspension pending further investigation. According to the government, the newspaper "rebels against all that could bring stability to this homeland, and its continuation does not serve peace and causes a threat to society and an outstanding threat to the individual."
The prosecutor for crimes against the state, who is under the authority of the Justice Ministry and handles terrorism cases and trials of government opponents, was behind the suspension of three other private dailies: Alwan, Al-Azminah, and Al-Ayam. Alwan was suspended for a month in early September after the prosecutor said the paper's reports had incited violence against the government but gave no specifics. The pro-government Al-Azminah was suspended in late September after it published an article saying that the Popular Defense Forces, an Islamist militia allied with the army, would be disbanded under an agreement between the government and rebels. The paper began publishing again in October. The independent daily Al-Ayam was suspended for six days in November and indefinitely in early December. The prosecutor accused the paper of publishing false information about fighting between rebels and the army.
Al-Sahafa, one of Sudan's more popular dailies, ran into trouble with authorities in 2003. Security agents twice detained without charge Youssef al-Bashir Moussa, a contributor to Al-Sahafa who is based in western Sudan's Darfur State, where the army and rebels have clashed. Both of his detentions came after he wrote articles about the civil war. On July 28, the day after Moussa was detained the second time, security forces confiscated an issue of the paper. The issue contained an article about talks between rebels and the government in Darfur at a time when the level of fighting in the state had intensified. In October, the NPC suspended Al-Sahafa for three days after the paper ran an advertisement for Ethiopian Airlines that mentioned the wine served on its flights. The NPC took issue with the newspaper for advertising alcohol, which is banned in Sudan.
In December, security forces closed the office of the pan-Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera and detained its correspondent Islam Salih for about five days. According to Al-Jazeera, Sudanese authorities had complained that Salih's reporting was biased against Sudan and wanted him replaced.