Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which formally ended a decades-long civil war between north and south, officially protects press freedom. However, Sudanese officials ignored these guarantees in practice. In February, the government reinstated formal censorship of the print news media, instructing local editors to submit each issue for pre-approval. Throughout the year, authorities confiscated newspapers and harassed journalists for attempting to report on sensitive topics, such as the conflict in Darfur, the Sudanese security forces, and official censorship itself. The government also used more subtle methods to control content, such as withholding government advertisements and imposing strict licensing that allows for the suspension of critical publications on administrative technicalities.
Fighting continued during the year in Darfur despite a 2006 peace deal between the government and the largest rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Movement. The struggle to cover one of the world’s biggest stories–up to 300,000 have died and more than 2 million have been displaced by U.N. estimates–continued as violence against peacekeepers and humanitarian workers increased amid deployment of a joint U.N. and African Union peacekeeping force. In July, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, accused President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Darfur, and announced that he was requesting a warrant for the president’s arrest. While the chance of an arrest and trial appeared slim, the announcement heightened fears that the government might retaliate against foreigners working in Sudan, including foreign journalists.
The conflict escalated on May 10, when the Darfur rebel group Justice and Equality Movement mounted an attack on Khartoum. It was the first time the capital had come under rebel assault. Nearly 100 Sudanese soldiers and several dozen civilians were reported killed in the fighting. Security forces launched a broad crackdown on the opposition and the news media in the aftermath of the attack, arresting hundreds of individuals suspected of sympathizing with the rebels.
On May 14, security forces arrested Darfuri journalist Al-Ghaly Yahya Shegifat, a writer for the critical daily Al Ra’y al-Shaab and president of the Association of Darfur Journalists in Khartoum. Shegifat was held at an undisclosed location until mid-August, according to his sister, Suad Monsour, who lives in the United States. Monsour said that Shegifat was reluctant to discuss his detention on the phone for fear of being monitored, but that she believed he might have been targeted because of his journalism. Also on May 14, security agents indefinitely shuttered the private daily Al-Wan and accused its editor, Hussein Khojali, of publishing sensitive military information, Managing Editor Al-Tayyib Farraj told Reuters. Farraj said the ban was enacted even though government censors had read the paper and signed off on its content. In July, the government blocked YouTube, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, after videos were posted showing security forces beating individuals arrested in connection with the May 10 attack.
Sudan ended a long-term civil war between the north’s Arab-Muslim elite and the south’s impoverished non-Muslim population with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in January 2005. A long-standing state of emergency lapsed as the ruling Islamist National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) formed a government of national unity led by al-Bashir. Both the peace agreement and the interim constitution, enacted in 2005, guarantee freedom of expression and of the press. The Sudanese print media have ballooned as a result of the peace accord, comprising more than a dozen private newspapers in Arabic and several English-language newspapers that mainly cover southern Sudan. However, restrictive laws remain, including the 2004 Press and Publications Act, which allows extensive government control of the media. The act established the National Press Council, a body with sweeping regulatory powers and only nominal independence from the National Congress Party. Even southern newspapers are subject to control by Khartoum, as they must either be printed in the capital or outside the country, greatly increasing costs. Additionally, continuing tensions between the NCP and the SPLM in the south threatened the news media’s ability to cover the peace agreement.
Sudanese security forces and the Press Council repeatedly censored critical coverage by private newspapers in 2008, provoking fears that the government was suppressing vital reporting in the lead-up to national elections scheduled for 2009. The elections are expected to be the first democratic vote in more than 20 years. In an April interview with Reuters, SPLM Deputy Secretary-General Yasir Arman asked, “How do you go to the elections with the media controlled by the state? There will be no equal opportunities.”
On February 14, after authorities restored formal censorship, Al-Ra’y al-Shaab was barred from publishing in Khartoum after security officials demanded it drop two articles on allegations that the Sudanese government supported rebel groups in neighboring Chad. In March, authorities barred the private newspaper Al-Midan from reporting on the acquittal of the newspaper’s editor, Al-Tijani al-Tayyeb, who had been charged with “disturbing the peace” for detailing alleged terrorist camps. In mid-April, authorities prevented the local Arabic-language dailies Al-Sudani, Al-Ahdath, and Al-Ra’y al-Shaab from publishing because the papers did not submit copies for pre-approval. Authorities also barred the Arabic-language daily Ajras al-Huriya and an English-language newspaper, The Citizen, because the papers reported on the censorship. The U.S. Embassy in Khartoum criticized censorship of the newspapers and urged the Government of National Unity to end media restrictions. On June 19, Ajras al-Huriya stopped printing for a week in protest, saying authorities had tried to remove nine articles in recent issues, including stories on Darfur, Chad, criticism of the ruling party, and the censorship itself.
On February 18, the editors of two independent papers, Sid Ahmed Khalifa of Al-Watan and Adil al-Baz of Al-Ahdath, were arrested and kept in prison overnight in connection with coverage of promotions and dismissals in the top ranks of the Sudanese police force. On February 19, five more local journalists were detained for questioning in connection with similar coverage. More than 50 Sudanese journalists marched in protest to the offices of the National Press Council and demanded the journalists’ release. All seven detainees were freed that day.
In mid-August, the National Press Council banned The Sudan Tribune and The Citizen, both private English-language papers that are distributed in southern Sudan but printed in Khartoum. The council said the ban was for “administrative” reasons, contending that the papers’ owners had violated their licensing agreements by having editors based in Juba (the capital of southern Sudan) instead of in Khartoum. The newspapers’ managers said the ban was politically motivated. Nhial Bol, owner of The Citizen, announced he would print the paper in a neighboring country, while the ban on The Sudan Tribune was lifted after owner and editor William Ezekiel agreed to appoint an acting editor to represent him in Khartoum, according to international news reports.
Violence against journalists in Sudan, while relatively rare, can be severe. In September 2006, Mohammed Taha Mohammed Ahmed, editor-in-chief of the private daily Al-Wifaq, was kidnapped and beheaded in apparent retaliation for having published an article questioning the origins of the Prophet Muhammad. In March 2008, 10 men convicted of the killing in 2007 filed an appeal, arguing that their confessions had been extracted through torture. Authorities have at times barred discussion of the case in the local press.
In a vast country lacking in infrastructure, broadcast media were the only means for most of the population to receive news. But all local television stations were owned by the government, and a military censor was reportedly stationed at the state-owned broadcaster, the Sudan Radio and Television Corporation, to ensure that television news reflected the party line. Although there were six private FM stations in Khartoum, they mainly focused on entertainment and rarely broadcast news programming, according to local sources. South Sudan, which is ruled by a semi-autonomous government under the peace accord, boasted several independent broadcasters and community radio stations as well as the U.N.-operated Radio Miraya. However, the government of Southern Sudan maintained full control over the broadcast licensing process and had shuttered critical stations in the past. The south had a nascent Public Service Broadcaster and Independent Broadcasting Authority, but their institutional independence from the SPLM was unclear, according to the international free expression organization Article 19.
In May, the U.S. military released Sami al-Haj, a Sudanese cameraman for Al-Jazeera who had been held at the U.S. Naval base at Guantánamo Bay since June 2002. Al-Haj, the only journalist confirmed by CPJ to be held at Guantánamo, was never charged with a crime and never put on trial. U.S. military authorities had accused him of working as a financial courier for armed groups and assisting al-Qaeda and extremist figures. His defense lawyers rejected these accusations and maintained that al-Haj was held for political reasons. After his release and return to Sudan, al-Haj gave a speech broadcast on Sudanese television in which he said he was repeatedly interrogated by the U.S. military about Al-Jazeera, and that the military wanted him to spy on the news network. CPJ, which had criticized al-Haj’s detention, welcomed his release and noted that al-Haj was among at least 14 journalists held by the U.S. military for extended periods without charge or trial since September 2001. (In addition to al-Haj, 12 journalists were held in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.) In November, Al-Jazeera announced that al-Haj would head the station’s newly created public liberties and human rights desk.
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