Paper banned for reporting on murdered editor

New York, February 1, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the indefinite closure today of an independent Sudanese daily for publishing an article about the beheading of an editor last September.

A state prosecutor imposed an immediate ban on the prominent Arabic-language Al-Sudani which carried an article on January 31 discussing the murder of Mohammed Taha Mohammed Ahmed, editor-in-chief of the private daily Al-Wifaq, in violation of an official ban on writing about the case.

“This absurd act of censorship is a good measure of where press freedoms stand today in Sudan,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “The closure on Al-Sudani should be lifted immediately along with this news blackout on the case of our murdered colleague.”

The prosecutor said the paper violated Article 39 of Sudan’s provisional constitution and provisions in the 2004 Press and Publication Act regarding harming “public interests and professional ethics” and “inciting religious and ethnic hatred.” He said he had imposed the ban under Article 130 of the 1991 Code of Criminal Procedure to “prevent any influence on the procedures that are still before the investigative authorities.”

The Al-Sudani article reported that those accused of the editor’s murder would stand trial next week. It described a visit by defense lawyers to 20 people held in connection with the killing in Kober jail in Khartoum, and said the attorneys were unable to visit two female defendants in another prison.

Noureddin Madani, deputy editor-in-chief of the daily, told CPJ that they appealed today to the Ministry of Justice, the constitutional court and the National Press Council, Sudan’s official press regulator. In a statement posted on Al-Sudani’s Web site, Mahjoub Erwa, the paper’s editor-in-chief, said the ban was “unjust” and denied that the article contained any incitement or racial hatred. The paper’s attorney said in the statement that only the courts and the Press Council have the legal right to ban a publication.

Erwa told Reuters, that the paper did not contravene the ban since the investigation was completed and the defendants were set for trial. “We didn’t write anything to jeopardize the court case,” Erwa said, adding that that the ban was intended to silence the paper.

Court cases and censorship have been on the rise in Sudan in recent months. On December 26, a criminal court in the capital, Khartoum, ordered Zuhayr al-Sarraj, former columnist for the private daily Al-Sahafa, and Noureddin Madani, the newspaper’s former editor, to pay a fine of 5 million (US$2,500) and 2 million (US$950) Sudanese pounds respectively or serve a jail sentence.

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, including Al-Sudani. Authorities told editors then that the issues were censored to avoid compromising the investigation into the murder of Al-Wifaq’s Taha.