Sudan garnered international headlines in 2004 due to widespread atrocities and ethnic cleansing in Darfur, an impoverished region in the west of the country. Since February 2003, government-backed militias, known as janjaweed, have killed tens of thousands of people and displaced close to 2 million in a counterinsurgency campaign against rebel groups.
Sudanese authorities went to great lengths to suppress reports of atrocities in Darfur, including imprisoning journalists. Security forces admonished or threatened other journalists over reporting about the situation.
The Information Ministry requires foreign journalists to obtain travel permits to go to Darfur, and government security officials must accompany them. Many journalists have avoided these restrictions by making the dangerous trip into the country through Chad. However, foreign correspondents told CPJ that international media exposure and diplomatic pressure on the Sudanese government late in the summer led to an easing of restrictions, and that by the fall, they were able to obtain visas more quickly. But some still have long waits and believe that the Sudanese government has singled them out due to their negative coverage.
Many journalists have also managed to avoid traveling with government security officials. However, they say that the presence of intelligence officials in Darfur’s refugee camps makes people leery of speaking freely to journalists. At year’s end, talks between the government and rebels were ongoing.
The state controls all television and radio stations, but pan-Arab satellite broadcasters like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, which report more aggressively on the government, are becoming increasingly popular. They are mostly seen in Khartoum and larger cities.
In April, Al-Jazeera’s Khartoum bureau chief, Salih, served more than two weeks of a one-month prison sentence after a Khartoum court convicted him of spreading false news and obstructing a public employee from doing his duty. The case stemmed from a December 2003 incident in which government agents confiscated equipment from Al-Jazeera’s office in Khartoum, claiming that it had been brought into the country improperly.
Salih was detained for several days afterward, and Sudanese authorities criticized Al-Jazeera’s coverage of Darfur, calling it “false.” When Salih was charged, authorities never mentioned Al-Jazeera’s reporting on Darfur, but Sudanese journalists believe that its coverage of the crisis was the reason for Salih’s arrest.
Authorities also used the Press Code, courts, harassment, and bureaucratic pressure to limit reporting by journalists on Darfur and many other topics. Over the years, the National Press Council (NPC), a pro-government body comprising journalists, Parliament members, and presidential appointees, has punished journalists and publications that displeased officials with their coverage. In June, Parliament also adopted a new Press Code that strengthens already stringent media regulations, according to the press freedom group Article 19.
In 2003, Sudan’s private press, which features many outspoken dailies, had become more aggressive after President Omar al-Bashir announced that security services could no longer question journalists, confiscate publications, or direct newspaper coverage. But the Darfur crisis prompted security services to resume these activities with renewed vigor in 2004, detaining journalists, suspending publications, and calling editors to tell them what to avoid covering. Phone calls included warnings not to criticize government officials, to avoid writing about government rights abuses, and to print pro-government news. In July, the online Sudanese newspaper Al-Midan published a reputed letter from the security services to journalists advising them how to cover the “Darfur Sedition.” It advised them to criticize the opposition, as well as Western governments that pressure the government over the crisis. Sudanese journalists concede that reporting on Darfur is mostly pro-government.
In May, at least five journalists were detained without charge for two days after reporting that the Sudanese economy was collapsing. One of the journalists, Omar Ismail, editor-in-chief of the private daily Al-Azminah, had already been sentenced to one month in prison in March for publishing an article alleging that the head of the NPC has connections to the security services. The paper was closed for three days. The court gave Ismail the option to pay a fine rather than serve the prison term, and he paid the fine.
In September, Hussein Khojali, editor of Alwan, a daily close to the opposition Popular Congress Party of Dr. Hassan al-Turabi, was held for more than two weeks. Local sources said his detention stemmed from an article he had written disputing the government’s version of an alleged coup attempt that authorities claim was engineered by al-Turabi supporters that month. He was detained again in November.
In 2004, two independent dailies that had been suspended since November 2003 were allowed to resume publication. Last year, authorities made vague accusations that the Khartoum Monitor and Al-Ayam were threatening national security. Both papers had reported on rebel activities and other topics critical of the government, and they were suspended while being investigated. The English-language Khartoum Monitor, which has been the target of repeated harassment, was allowed to resume publication in late March, but only after the newspaper’s chairman signed a document promising to adhere to the law. The respected independent daily Al-Ayam was allowed to resume publication in February, but Al-Ayam Chairman Mahjoub Mohamed Saleh has been harassed and briefly detained since.
Although access to the Internet is limited, in July, authorities blocked Sudanese Online, a U.S.-based Web site run by a Sudanese-American. The site has a discussion forum and also publishes articles critical of the Sudanese government.