In Sudan, vast censorship and a repressive press bill

New York, May 29, 2009Sudanese media have suffered multiple blows in recent months as parliament considers a harshly repressive press bill and authorities impose an exceptional level of censorship, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. 

The press bill, introduced in the Sudanese National Assembly in April, falls far short of international standards for free expression, according to CPJ’s analysis. The bill appears to contradict provisions in the 2005 Sudanese Interim Constitution which guarantee freedom of expression, the reception and transmission of information, and the right to publish.

Sudanese journalists and local and international free expression groups have offered similar views.

“If passed, this bill will constitute a major blow to journalists in Sudan,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa. “We call on members of parliament to reject this deeply flawed measure.”

On May 19, dozens of journalists from the Sudanese Journalist Network, an independent group, gathered in front of the National Assembly in Khartoum to protest the measure, according to local press reports. The same day, about 150 of the body’s 450 members walked out of the chamber to signal their disapproval.

The bill grants the National Council for the Press and Publications unprecedented authority to grant and revoke publication licenses; impose strict disciplinary measures against journalists; conduct examination of journalists to determine their suitability for the profession; and confiscate printing equipment. Eight of the council’s 21 members would be appointed by the president, according to the bill. The president’s office would have sole oversight of the National Council for the Press and Publications.

According to the bill, newspapers would have to renew licenses annually and journalists must be registered with the council in order to work. Journalists can be fined up to 50,000 new Sudanese pounds (US$21,000) for violating any provision of the bill, according to Article 37. Article 26 stipulates that an editor-in-chief bears primary legal responsibility for all matters appearing in a newspaper, but it assigns legal responsibility to writers, editors, publishers, printers, and distributors as well.

In another alarming development, local journalists told CPJ that security agents are imposing censorship at an ever-increasing rate. The 1999 National Security Forces Law grants security forces significant powers over the media.

Journalists told CPJ that censorship was tightened in February 2008 after some newspapers accused the Sudanese government of backing a failed coup in neighboring Chad. Censorship was ramped up again after the Darfur-based rebel group the Justice and Equality Movement, attacked Khartoum in May 2008. Censorship grew again this year after the International Criminal Court’s decision to issue an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, journalists said.

Around 9 p.m. every day, security officers visit newspapers to determine what they can print and what will be censored, journalists told CPJ. “It is totally arbitrary,” Murtadha al-Ghali, editor-in-chief of the independent daily Ajras al-Huriya, told CPJ. “[The officer] removes certain articles from our newspaper and the next day other newspapers publish similar articles.”

Security agents most often censor articles about Darfur, the International Criminal Court, human rights issues, official corruption, aid organizations that have been forced to leave Sudan, and the pending press bill, journalists told CPJ.

Abdul Qadir Muhammad, a journalist at the weekly Al-Maidan, told CPJ that on three occasions this year censorship was so extensive that the paper could not go to print. “The officer removed 18 of my articles since January–and that is just my articles,” he told CPJ. Muhammad said that he estimates that more than 150 articles have been removed from the paper since the beginning of the year.

Other journalists recounted similar experiences, “On Tuesday we didn’t publish the newspaper because the censor excised more than 15 articles,” al-Ghali told CPJ. “Since January we have not been able to produce the newspaper nine times because of censorship.” 

On May 14, 2008 security forces raided the office of Al-Alwan newspaper and shut down the publication after it ran articles critical of the government that were deemed to harm national security, according to local and international news reports. The newspaper remains closed, journalists told CPJ.

Other newspapers, including The Citizens, Ajras al-Huriya, Al-Wifaq and Raei Al-Shaeb, have been suspended for at least brief periods, CPJ research shows.