• Censorship intensifies before election; beatings, imprisonments reported.
• Authorities use surveillance, harassment, severe legal restrictions to control news.
3: Rai al-Shaab journalists imprisoned, one of whom reported being tortured in custody.
Sudanese journalists faced a familiar, toxic combination of censorship, legalistic harassment, and intimidation as a potentially historic national election instead left ruling authorities further entrenched. Self-censorship was widespread among Sudan’s beleaguered press, while security agents regularly prevented coverage of topics deemed sensitive, including Darfur, the International Criminal Court (ICC), human rights issues, official corruption, secessionism, and state censorship itself. Repression and political unrest continued after the election as attention turned to a planned 2011 national referendum that could result in full independence for South Sudan. Meanwhile, government restrictions continued to inhibit media coverage of the pressing humanitarian crisis in Darfur.
THE PRESS: 2010
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In mid-April, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir was elected with more than 68 percent of the vote, despite a year-old ICC arrest warrant accusing him of crimes against humanity. The election, envisioned as Sudan’s first multi-party presidential poll in more than 20 years, was marred by a boycott by major opposition parties, widespread irregularities, and accusations of fraud. (Some opposition parties did participate in other components of the election, including voting for certain legislative, regional, and local seats.) International observers reported that political rights and freedoms were circumscribed during the pre-electoral period, and that vote-counting was opaque and vulnerable to manipulation.
The election and the scheduled referendum are core components of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which brought an end to more than two decades of conflict between Sudan’s northern Muslim elite and the South’s impoverished non-Muslim population. As part of the agreement, the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) formed a government of national unity led by al-Bashir. Ten southern states were also accorded substantial regional autonomy under the Government of South Sudan, headed by the SPLM’s Salva Kiir, who was also re-elected in the April vote.
Both the CPA and the 2005 interim constitution affirm the rights of free expression and press freedom. Despite these guarantees, authorities in Khartoum have constructed an oppressive censorship regime through a variety of mechanisms, including restrictive bureaucratic procedures, state surveillance and harassment, and draconian legal regulations. In July, Amnesty International released a report documenting the widespread use of torture by Sudanese security agencies against human rights defenders and critics of the government, including journalists. In August, the security services announced that journalists who had not completed an extensive government questionnaire would be detained. The questionnaire, which was distributed to journalists in July, consisted of detailed queries on political viewpoints, friends, addresses, bank accounts, and floor plans of the journalists’ residences. Several journalists writing for critical publications told CPJ that they refused to submit the information. Some relented after being summoned to security offices for several hours of interrogation and threats. “It is better to be a thief here in Sudan than to be a journalist,” Faiz al-Silaik, acting editor of Ajras Al-Hurriya, told Reuters. Authorities in the semi-autonomous South also restricted press freedom, particularly with regard to anti-SPLM criticism and coverage of inter-ethnic violence in the region.
Repression of critical voices intensified ahead of the elections. On several occasions in December 2009, police beat and detained journalists attempting to report on clashes between government forces and protesters demanding changes to Sudan’s electoral law. In March, the government’s National Press Council–ostensibly a media regulatory agency but effectively an arm of the NCP–questioned two Khartoum-based newspaper editors accused of “insulting” the president. The pro-opposition Rai Al-Shaab and Ajras Al-Hurriya had both published articles suggesting that al-Bashir surrender to the ICC. In early April, the National Press Council charged a prominent journalist and opposition party member, Al-Haj Ali Warrag, with “waging war against the state,” a crime under the Sudanese penal code. The charge stemmed from an opinion piece published in Ajras Al-Huriya, in which Warrag expressed support for the SPLM’s decision to boycott the presidential election and alleged that the NCP was engaged in vote-rigging.
Sudan’s security agencies regularly censored coverage of politically sensitive topics. In June, authorities blocked printing of the opposition weekly Al-Maidan after its staff failed to provide security personnel with an advance copy of the paper. One of the newspaper’s journalists, Abdelgadir Mohammed Abdelgadir, told CPJ that government censors had expanded the unwritten list of subjects considered off-limits to the press to include stories about an ongoing physicians’ strike and diplomatic talks in Kampala, Uganda, concerning the International Criminal Court. “In the past, the redline was Darfur or human rights violations,” Abdelgadir said. “Today, we have two additional topics: a doctors’ strike and the ICC conference in Kampala.” The same week, Ajras Al-Huriya did not publish for three days because government censors deleted so much content–from literature to sports–that editors believed the editions had been compromised. Stories about the strike and the ICC conference were among those deleted.
In August, Mohamed Atta, director of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), announced a decision to lift all censorship in Sudan. Journalists remained highly skeptical, noting that similar commitments in the past–including a near-identical statement in September 2009–had been quickly broken. Indeed, Atta warned that his agency reserved “its constitutional right” to reinstate “full or partial censorship whenever the necessity arises.”
Worsening regional tensions throughout the second half of 2010, though of critical national importance, were another no-go area for the local press. In July, NISS suspended publication of the daily Al-Intibaha, accusing the paper of “strengthening separatist tendencies.” The suspension stemmed from an article by the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, El-Tayeb Mustafa, that criticized Libyan involvement in Darfur and Libya’s hosting of a Sudanese rebel group.
Journalists were often caught in the fray of Sudan’s highly partisan political atmosphere. In May, security forces raided the Khartoum offices of Rai al-Shaab, halting all printing and confiscating equipment and copies of the newspaper. They also arrested deputy editor Abu Zar al-Amin, along with the newspaper’s political editor and three reporters. The newspaper was subsequently shuttered. The arrests and closure were in retaliation for a report alleging that Iranian agents were working in Sudan to assist insurgents in Africa and the Middle East. The report was dismissed by the ruling party as a scheme by the Popular Congress Party (PCP), which publishes the newspaper, to sour relations between the United States and Sudan; authorities also arrested the PCP’s chief, Hassan al-Turabi, a former ally of al-Bashir who had turned critical of the regime. Al-Amin stated, through his lawyer, that he was severely beaten and tortured with electric shocks while in custody. In July, he and two Rai al-Shaab reporters were convicted of “undermining the constitutional system” and “publishing false information” and sentenced to prison terms of two to five years. A fourth journalist was acquitted. The trial raised questions of fairness and procedure; for example, some defense lawyers withdrew from the case to protest the judges’ refusal to accept some of their witnesses.
In a vast country lacking in infrastructure, broadcast media were the only means for most of the population to receive news. But the Khartoum government owned all local television stations and controlled most local radio, aside from outlets backed by the United Nations and a handful of stations based in South Sudan, which fall under the regulatory authority of the regional government. In August, the government suspended the BBC’s license to broadcast in Arabic on local, state-operated FM frequencies in four northern cities, including Khartoum. Authorities claimed the decision was “not at all connected” to the BBC’s news coverage, instead alleging that the BBC had brought satellite equipment into the country in violation of a prior agreement with the government. BBC officials expressed disappointment over the suspension and said they would attempt to resolve the standoff through discussions with the government. In October, Sudanese authorities declined to renew the license of Radio France Internationale’s Arabic-language service, known as Monte Carlo, to broadcast on local frequencies. According to the U.N.-backed radio station Miraya FM (which is based in the South), a senior NCP official, Rabie Abdulatti, said that the suspension was not politically motivated. Abdulatti added that licensing required various conditions, including “conditions of reciprocity that would permit Sudanese radio to broadcast its material in Britain and France.”
Authorities in the South, where the SPLM is politically dominant, also harassed broadcast journalists. In March, security officers in the southern state of Central Equatoria raided two local radio stations, temporarily forced them to stop broadcasting, and detained staff. The raid on Liberty FM was apparently prompted by an interview with an independent state gubernatorial candidate who was challenging the SPLM ticket. Security agents did not explain their decision to raid the Roman Catholic-run Bakhita Radio and arrest its manager, a nun. However, the station was warned to stay away from politics and broadcast only religious programs, according to news reports. Both stations said their staff members were later released and that they resumed broadcasting the same day. In May, a minister in the southern government criticized Miraya FM for airing an interview with George Athor, a dissident SPLM commander who threatened to launch a rebellion after losing in regional elections. Some local journalists expressed disapproval of the minister’s statements, saying they pointed to political intolerance.
While the outlook for Sudan’s media appeared grim with the approaching referendum–which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to in August as “a ticking time bomb”–some young Sudanese activists were harnessing the power of the Internet and social networking sites to press for nonviolent change. Members of the nascent pro-democracy movement Girifna (Arabic for “We are fed up”) aired information on citizens’ rights via Facebook, YouTube, and an online radio station. Volunteers alerted activists to repression via cell-phone videos, text messages, and Skype, according to The Washington Post.