CPJ finds obstruction during Sudanese referendum

New York, January 27, 2010–Sudanese authorities harassed, obstructed, and censored local and international news media covering this month’s referendum concerning independence for South Sudan, a CPJ analysis has found. CPJ condemns the harassment of the press in Sudan and calls for an end to the repressive tactics. 

South Sudanese cast ballots from January 9 through 15. Preliminary results show overwhelming approval for independence, although ballot-counting irregularities have been reported.

CPJ documented several press freedom violations while the referendum was under way. On January 10, BBC journalist Rasha Kashan and studio manager Atef Eladi, were interrogated and detained in two episodes totaling four hours, a BBC source told CPJ. The two were questioned about a live radio magazine program, “BBC Xtra,” and Kashan, was asked to come back the following day for questioning. The BBC decided to evacuate its staff from Khartoum following the detention, local journalist told CPJ.

Sudanese authorities also prevented international media from interviewing opposition leaders during the referendum, the Sudan Tribune reported. On January 10, security agents prevented U.S. government-funded Al-Hurra television from conducting an interview with opposition leader Mubarak al-Fadil, the Sudan Tribune reported in an account that the station confirmed for CPJ. Security agents cut the satellite link while al-Fadil was being interviewed in the studio. “They don’t want us to speak about the consequences and the dangers ahead after South Sudan breaks away,” al-Fadil told the Sudan Tribune.

On January 11, authorities in the eastern city of Port Sudan closed the weekly Sawt Barout after the paper published an article calling for independence for east Sudan, according to news reports. The article’s author, Abdelgadir Bakash, who is also the editor-in-chief, was detained on January 10, according to local news reports. Bakash’s whereabouts and legal status remain unclear.

On January 20, security officers blocked distribution of the independent daily Ajras al-Huriya, local journalists told CPJ, according to local journalists and a statement released by the newspaper. It was unclear what coverage prompted the obstruction; the government did not offer an explanation.

“Sudanese authorities have mastered the infamous art of persecuting the messenger,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “We call on Khartoum to allow local and international access to information in this critical time for the country and to release Abdelgadir Bakash without delay.”