New York, February 18, 2015–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the confiscation by Sudanese security agents of editions from at least 14 newspapers on Monday, in what the country’s National Council for Press and Publications described as an “unprecedented” action.
The National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) did not explain why it confiscated the editions, according to news reports. The National Council for Press and Publications, a government body officially charged with overseeing newspapers, said in a statement it regretted the confiscations and pledged to investigate.
“Sudanese authorities have a long history of censoring the news and obstructing its dissemination,” said CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, Sherif Mansour. “We call on authorities to let the media do their job of informing the public.”
In recent years NISS has moved from censoring newspapers before publication to confiscating entire print runs when a paper publishes content it disapproves of, according to CPJ guest blogger Abdelgadir Mohammed Abdelgadir. This tactic censors the news and forces publications to incur significant financial losses. NISS has power to decide what can and cannot be published, the freelance journalist wrote in 2012.
According to Sudanese press freedom group Journalists for Human Rights, editions of the dailies Al-Sudani, Al-Tayar, Al-Rai al-Aam, Al-Intibaha, Akhir Lahza, Al-Ahram al-Youm, Awal al-Nahar, Al-Watan, Al-Wan, Al-Saiha, Al-Mijhar al-Siyasi, Al-Dar, and Hikayat were confiscated. Agence France-Presse reported that the daily Akhbar al-Youm was also confiscated.
Sudan Tribune cited journalists who speculated the confiscations could have been related to coverage of a journalist who briefly went missing, the extension of the voting period in the upcoming general election, or an incident where presidential guards allegedly prevented a former rebel leader from entering the presidential compound.
The NISS has previously demanded that newspapers abstain from covering the International Criminal Court, government corruption, human rights violations, Darfur, the war in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, armed movements, and many other subjects, Abdelgadir wrote.
CPJ could not immediately determine the ownership or affiliation of the Sudanese publications. In a September 2013 article, the UK-based freedom of expression organization Index on Censorship said the NISS and ruling National Congress Party have been buying publications that were independent. It would appear that having a link to the government does not protect a publication from having editions confiscated.
Separately, on January 13 Madiha Abdella, editor-in-chief of the Communist Party’s official outlet Al-Midan, was charged with criminal conspiracy, undermining the constitutional system, encouraging violent or criminal opposition, and the publication of false news, Abdella told CPJ. She also faces charges of failing to uphold the responsibilities of an editor-in-chief and violating the requirements for a licensed paper under the press law. Abdella, who was released pending trial, said the charges resulted from the publication of a press statement in December from a leader of the rebel group Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North about citizens demanding social services in South Kordofan. No trial date has been set.
Abdella and her colleagues Ibrahim Mirghani and Suleiman Hamad also face a separate trial on charges of defaming the government, failing to uphold the responsibilities of an editor-in-chief, and violating licensing requirements, Abdella told CPJ. Their trial convened on the same day as the confiscations and the next hearing is due on March 1. Abdella said these charges stem from Al-Midan’s coverage of the government’s response to palm tree fires in Northern state last summer, and a series of articles Hamad wrote alleging government mismanagement.
“The government should drop all charges against the staff of Al-Midan. Publishing critical coverage of government activity and opposition viewpoints are not crimes,” said CPJ’s Mansour.
Despite the charges, Abdella said Al-Midan will continue to publish online, but said the website was facing technical difficulties. CPJ was unable to access the website as of today. Al-Midan‘s print edition has been repeatedly confiscated this year, according to news reports. In June 2013, it was ordered by authorities to cease publication of its print edition, according to CPJ research. It is not clear when it began printing again.
The latest confiscations and prosecutions came as the Sudanese government passed a freedom of information law which it said would increase transparency in the country, according to news reports. Sudanese journalists told CPJ last month the law was unlikely to strengthen press freedom in the country.