Sudanese journalists convicted for column on government perks

New York, December 27, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned by the criminal convictions on Tuesday of two Sudanese journalists in connection with a column critical of government perks.

A criminal court in the capital, Khartoum, ordered Zuhayr al-Sarraj, former columnist for the private daily Al-Sahafa, to pay a fine of 5 million Sudanese pounds (US$2,500) or spend one year in jail, according to the newspaper’s former editor, Noureddin Madani. Madani was also convicted in the case and ordered to pay a fine of 2 million Sudanese pounds (US$950) or spend six months in prison.

The two journalists were charged two years ago in connection with an al-Sarraj column criticizing perks that parliament and President Omar Bashir had approved for high-level government officials. The journalists were charged under the Sudanese criminal code and press law with slander and inaccurate editing, according to Sudanese journalists.

“It’s alarming that the Sudanese government treats journalists as criminals for scrutinizing official actions,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “This spurious case speaks volumes about the government’s stance on press freedom.”

The Sudanese Council of Ministers initiated the charges, claiming that al-Sarraj had exaggerated in the column, “Dividing the Spoils.” Madani told CPJ that the government had never contacted the journalists to point out any errors.

“This verdict is meant to silence journalists,” Madani told CPJ. “Why does the government take a journalist to court? Does the government need money? Two million [Sudanese] pounds does not benefit the government; it is about pressuring journalists.”

Madani, is now deputy editor-in-chief of the Arabic language daily Al-Sudani, and al-Sarraj is a columnist for that paper. Both plan to appeal Tuesday’s verdict, Madani told CPJ.

Al-Sarraj still faces trial for a January 2006 column in Al-Sahafa, which criticized Bashir for failing to address the many problems facing the Sudanese people. He was arrested by Sudanese security forces and held for 60 hours at Kober jail in Khartoum on January 3 and later charged by the national security prosecutor with “insulting the president.” If convicted, al-Sarraj risks losing his license to practice journalism in Sudan.

Press freedom has been heavily curtailed in Sudan in recent months. On October 15, Abu Obeida Abdallah, a reporter for the pro-government daily Al-Rai al-Aam, was released after being held incommunicado without charge for more than two weeks by security forces. In September, several opposition and independent newspapers were seized or heavily censored, among them Rai al-Shaab, an opposition Arabic-language daily for the Popular National Congress party, and Al-Sudani.