Despite free speech protections built into Sudan’s 2005 interim constitution, authorities operated as if a state of emergency were still in force. Newspaper suspensions, criminal charges, and detentions were a routine part of working as a journalist in Sudan. When trying to cover one of the world’s biggest stories—the genocide in Darfur—reporters faced high barriers.
The Arab janjaweed militias backed by the government have killed more than 200,000 people and displaced 2.5 million others over the last four years in the Darfur region of western Sudan, according to international news reports. One rebel group, a faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement led by Minni Arcua Minnawi, signed the Darfur Peace Agreement with the Sudanese government in 2006. The agreement was intended to stop three years of fighting in Darfur, but it was made largely moot by the refusal of other rebel groups to join. The government allowed a joint U.N. and African Union peacekeeping force to deploy in the region, but the violence continued—as did the struggle to cover the story.
Al-Musalimi al-Bashir al-Kabashi, Khartoum bureau chief for Al-Jazeera, told CPJ that local and foreign journalists were able to travel from the capital to Darfur unhindered by authorities. But once there, he said, insecurity in the western region often prevented journalists from traveling freely. Criminal gangs taking advantage of the chaos, he said, posed a particular threat.
Even when not reporting from the center of the crisis, Sudan’s television and radio broadcasters remained under the tight control of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s government. The country’s print press—composed of independent, opposition, and pro-government dailies and weeklies—had greater latitude. Independent newspapers such as Al-Sahafa and Al-Sudani produced daring coverage of sensitive topics such as government corruption and security service actions. The pan-Arab satellite channels Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya also reported aggressively on the government’s actions.
Sudan emerged from a decades-long civil war between the north’s Arab-Muslim elite and the south’s impoverished non-Muslim Africans with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in January 2005. The longstanding state of emergency lapsed as the ruling Islamist National Congress Party and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement formed a national unity government led by al-Bashir. In early July 2005, Sudan adopted an interim national constitution that guaranteed freedom of expression and the press. But al-Bashir’s government has not always lived up to its word.
Despite constitutional guarantees, the Justice Ministry and prosecutors often invoked Article 130 of the 1991 Code of Criminal Procedure to suspend newspapers for covering subjects such as popular unrest, the security services, the justice minister and other officials, and certain criminal investigations. Journalists maintained that the legal provision did not apply to the press, since it specifically deals with “crimes relating to safety and public health.”
In February, a state prosecutor suspended indefinitely the prominent Arabic-language daily Al-Sudani for covering the murder of Mohammed Taha Mohammed Ahmed, the Al-Wifaq editor beheaded in September 2006. The prosecutor said he imposed the ban under Article 130 to “prevent any influence” on the investigation. Al-Sudani Editor-in-Chief Mahjoub Erwa told Reuters the paper exerted no such influence since the investigation had already been completed. The suspension was overturned on appeal, and the ban was soon lifted.
Prosecutors charged 19 Darfuris, including two women and a 16-year-old boy, in the editor’s brutal murder. Taha had angered Islamists by running an article about the Prophet Muhammad, and he had written critically about armed groups operating in Darfur. A Khartoum criminal court dismissed the case against nine of the defendants in August, citing insufficient evidence, but handed down death sentences to the remaining 10 in November, The Associated Press reported. Some of the defendants complained of coerced confessions and torture by Sudanese security services. Journalists expressed skepticism that the investigation had uncovered the people responsible for masterminding the murder.
In May, authorities suspended Al-Sudani again under Article 130 for allegedly libeling Justice Minister Mohamed Ali al-Mardi. Osman Mirghani, a reporter at the paper, told CPJ he wrote a critical article calling on the minister to resign for his handling of a money-laundering case. Mirghani and Erwa were detained for several days but never charged. Following an intensive campaign by local journalists, the government allowed the paper to resume publication on May 23, according to news reports. Yielding to mounting pressure, al-Mardi said Article 130 would not be used against the press again.
The National Press and Publications Council (NPPC), Sudan’s official press regulator, kept in place stringent requirements for licensing newspapers. The NPPC also ordered a two-day suspension of the daily Al-Watan following a February interview in which two religious militants threatened to kill foreigners in Sudan. The paper was accused of “provoking hatred against the state” and violating journalistic responsibilities, Deputy Editor-in-Chief Adil Sid Ahmed told CPJ.
Government officials regularly filed criminal complaints against newspapers and journalists for publishing purportedly false information. Editors told CPJ that the prosecutor’s office vigorously pursued their papers and staff. The independent daily Al-Ayam has been named in five criminal cases filed by government institutions or officials, according to its editor-in-chief, Mahjoub Mohamed Saleh. Al-Watan’s Sid Ahmed said his paper was facing 10 separate trials over its news coverage. Beyond the heavy fines levied against papers in several cases, editors told CPJ that their work was hindered by the amount of time they had to spend in court.
When it was not filing lawsuits, the government was busy seizing newspapers and censoring stories. Security officers confiscated the press run of the opposition daily Ra’y Al-Shaab on August 21, a journalist at the paper told CPJ. Later that month, authorities seized an entire press run of the opposition weekly Al-Midan without providing a reason.
In mid-June, the government tried to black out coverage of a deadly clash in the northern village of Furaig between Sudanese forces and several thousand Nubian demonstrators angered by construction of the Kajbar Dam. While authorities did not issue an official ban, they actively prevented journalists from reaching the area and arrested those who managed to report on the confrontation. About 300,000 Nubians, an ethnic group with a distinct culture and language, live in villages along the Nile River north of Khartoum. The government’s planned construction of dams in their region would flood around 30 villages, the AP reported, forcing many residents to relocate. The government’s crackdown on protesters left four civilians dead and 19 injured, according to CPJ sources.
Authorities detained reporters on several occasions. In one egregious case, Ra’y Al-Shaab reporter Mujahid Abdallah was detained for two months for violating a ban on covering the Kajbar Dam story. He was released without charge on August 19 after signing a pledge not to write anything negative about the project.
Journalists on assignment also faced physical harassment at the hands of the Sudanese security services. The most alarming example was the beating and detention in March of Nichola Dominic Mandil, a Sudanese producer for the U.S. government-funded Sudan Radio Service (SRS). Mandil had gone to an area northwest of Khartoum to report on clashes between security forces and the rebel Minawi faction, the station reported. The security forces prevented several journalists, including Mandil, from reporting the story. As he waited for a taxi to leave the area, he told the SRS, members of the security services forced him into a car. The officers blindfolded and severely beat him, he said. Mandil was accused of “being a foreign agent in Sudan promoting American ideology” and held for five days, the SRS reported.
Foreign journalists trying to tell the Darfur story were obstructed. The External Information Council (EIC), a press liaison office, issued an exit visa in March to BBC correspondent Jonah Fisher, forcing him to leave the country within one month, the journalist said. The EIC told Fisher’s lawyer that the Interior Ministry had deemed his reporting “hostile.” That reporting had included a November 2006 piece about the government working closely with the janjaweed militias. Fisher left Sudan in April.
Reporters who wanted to enter the Darfur region had to obtain permission from both the bureaucracy-laden EIC and military leaders who imposed travel restrictions, Fisher said. The expenditure of time and money for uncertain results deterred some journalists from parachuting in for short periods to cover the conflict. On top of that, the presence of security forces and informants in refugee camps made residents hesitant to talk freely with the press.
For the local press, self-censorship of government atrocities or those carried out by the janjaweed was heavy, even at independent newspapers. English-language papers had more leeway and often reprinted reports carried in the Western press. More often than not, however, a significant portion of the citizenry remained in the dark about the extent of the violence.