Sudan bans BBC Arabic, tightens grip on the press

New York, August 9, 2010—The Sudanese government has announced it is suspending the BBC’s license to broadcast in Arabic on local FM frequencies in four northern cities, including the capital, Khartoum. Security personnel also informed editors in recent days that journalists who had not completed an extensive government questionnaire would be detained, journalists told CPJ.  

The Ministry of Information announced on Sunday that the government “is stopping the BBC’s FM service operating in Khartoum, Port Sudan, Medani, and el-Obeid, and is suspending the agreement between the BBC and the National Broadcasting Authority effective August 9,” the Sudan News Agency reported. Authorities claimed the decision to suspend BBC radio broadcasts is “not at all connected” to the BBC’s coverage. They said the BBC had brought satellite equipment into the country through diplomatic channels in violation of an agreement signed in 1999. They also claimed that the BBC has been working in Southern Sudan without permission from the central government, according to the statement.

The BBC said on its website that it hopes that “ongoing discussions with the authorities in Khartoum will get it back on air.” Jihad Ali Ballout, communications manager for BBC Arabic in London, told CPJ that the broadcaster’s priority is its weekly audience of 4 million listeners in Sudan, and that it “hopes to find ways to reconnect with them.”

Separately, security services distributed a questionnaire to journalists in July consisting of 26 detailed questions about political viewpoints, friends, addresses, bank accounts, and floor plans of journalists’ residences. Critical publications were told to return the completed forms no later than August 5, local journalists told CPJ.   

Sahal Adam of the Arabic-language daily Ajras al-Huriya told CPJ he refused to submit the detailed information. “The aim here is twofold,” he said. “One, to collect information useful when a need to arrest a critical journalist arises, but also to intimidate us.” Agents told his editor that Adam would be arrested if he didn’t cooperate, the journalist said. Other journalists from Ajras al-Huriya refused to submit the questionnaire, including Zahel at-Tib, Qamer Dulman, Fatima Jaqed, and Hanadi As-Sadiq. However, they were summoned to the security offices and after several hours of interrogation and threats they provided the information, at-Tib told CPJ.

“Sudan has shown itself to be intolerant of any international attention, and this ban on BBC Arabic is merely the latest example,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “We are also gravely disturbed by this questionnaire for journalists, especially the demand for a floor plan of their homes. We can see no reason why the government would want this information and the transparent aim is to intimidate journalists, who could face arrest.”

On Saturday, Mohamed Atta, director of the National Intelligence and Security Services, announced a decision to lift all censorship in Sudan. Until now, security agents have directly censored critical papers’ stories daily. However, in a statement published by the state-run Sudan Media Center, Atta warned that the agency “reserves its constitutional right” to reinstate “full or partial censorship whenever the necessity arises.” The government has made similar pronouncements that they would lift censorship in the past.