Sudanese editors could face death penalty over critical coverage

New York, December 21, 2015–Sudanese authorities should drop all charges against two newspaper editors potentially facing the death penalty on charges stemming from their work, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Osman Mirghani, editor of the privately owned daily Al-Tayar, and Ahmed Yousef Al-Tay, editor of the privately owned Al-Saiha, are charged with abusing their positions as journalists, publishing false news, and undermining the constitutional system, according to Mirghani and news reports. The latter offense can be punished by death, according to Sudan’s penal code. Plainclothes agents of State Security, Sudan’s domestic intelligence agency, arrested the two from their offices in Khartoum on Wednesday, according to news reports.

“Charging journalists with a crime punishable by death marks an alarming escalation in the Sudanese government’s battle against independent media,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “We call on the authorities to drop all charges against Osman Mirghani and Ahmed Yousef Al-Tay immediately.”

Both Mirghani and Al-Tay were released on bail six hours after their arrest, according to news reports. Mirghani told CPJ that he expects his trial to start this week based on his experience of what Sudan’s National Security Court uses as a time frame for similar cases, but he said he was not told of a fixed date during his interrogation.

Mirghani told London’s Guardian newspaper that he was being scapegoated for what he called widespread criticism of the government. Two days prior to his arrest, Al-Tayar announced on its Facebook page that security services had indefinitely suspended the newspaper’s license. On the same day, Mirghani held a press conference challenging the legality of the ban on the newspaper, according to local news reports.

In a December 12 column, Mirghani criticized Finance Minister Badr Al-Din Mahmoud for blaming the Sudanese people for frequent electricity cuts. In his column of the same day for Al-Saiha, Al-Tay likewise criticized the finance minister for his remarks, asserting that the government has not been able to restrict its own consumption.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on December 14 criticized his government’s inability to “control the media” in an address to his ruling National Congress Party’s parliamentary caucus. He warned that he himself would take “decisive measures” following press reports, which Bashir denied, that the finance minister had asked parliament to cut subsidies on fuel, bread, and electricity in the next annual budget, according to news reports.

In 2013, after a wave of violent protests against reduced gasoline subsidies, the Sudanese government ordered editors to publish news in line with official statements. The government twice shut down Internet service to prevent protesters from using social media, according to news reports.

In July 2014, Mirghani was beaten when a group of armed men in plainclothes raided Al-Tayar’s offices, confiscating laptops and cellphones, and destroying equipment, according to CPJ research. In May 2014, Al-Saiha said that State Security agents raided its office and that at least 10 of its journalists had been summoned for interrogation in connection with corruption coverage, according to CPJ research. In February 2015, Al-Tayar and Al-Saiha were among at least 14 newspapers whose print run was confiscated by Sudanese security agents without an explanation.