An anti-government rally in Khartoum on January 13. Several journalists are detained and Sudanese authorities are censoring newspapers to try to limit coverage of the unrest. (AP)
An anti-government rally in Khartoum on January 13. Several journalists are detained and Sudanese authorities are censoring newspapers to try to limit coverage of the unrest. (AP)

Sudan responds to anti-Bashir coverage with censorship and arrests

“We were all journalists, so we went to work. We wrote about what happened to us that day,” Ashraf Abdelaziz, editor-in-chief of the privately owned al-Jarida daily told me over the phone this week, while recounting how he and his colleagues reported on their own arrest while still in detention.

While surrounded by police officers wielding weapons and shouting at them to remain glued to the floor of the police station they had been taken to, the journalists wrote about how they were arrested for protesting about widespread censorship outside Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) headquarters. They were detained for six hours at the remote station north of Khartoum, until members of the Sudanese Journalists Union negotiated their release.

Upon release, Abdelaziz said, he raced to the print house, only to be turned down again for the seventeenth time by a NISS censor. “Actually, it was 16,” Abdelziz immediately corrected himself, to stress the distinction. “16 times the NISS officer ordered al-Jarida issues to be banned from printing, and once more the issue was banned from distribution after it was printed.”

The practice, which Abdelaziz calls “prior censorship,” started amid widespread protests over President Omar al-Bashir’s refusal to step down before the 2020 presidential elections. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested and dozens were killed in clashes, according to reports. Authorities said that at least 19 people, including two security personnel, were killed in clashes. The rights group Amnesty International puts the death toll from protests at more than 40, according to news reports.

On December 20, the NISS ordered print houses not to publish dailies covering the protests, without prior approval. The situation has since continued to deteriorate for the press, with several journalists being arrested, including two with whom I spoke earlier this week: columnist Shamael Elnoor and prominent journalist Faisal Mohamed Saleh, who both spoke out about the protests and were arrested on January 17.

Newspapers are being forced to toe the government line, some steering away from covering the protest all together and others publishing blank spaces in the places assigned for protest coverage and opinion columns that support it, the local journalists with whom I spoke said.

Abdelaziz’s outlet, Al-Jarida, is one of few dailies that has insisted on covering the protests in full every day, even if it meant the outlet could only circulate its edition as a PDF online.

“Almost every day, a security officer who has no journalism experience or training acts as my editor-in-chief,” al-Tayyar columnist Elnoor told me on January 16, before her arrest. On December 21, the privately owned al-Tayar was ordered to remove Elnoor’s column and several other items on the protest, before the print edition was allowed to be distributed. But a copy of the issue, including Elnoor’s column, was posted online.

“They could silence my print voice, but I can express myself online,” Elnoor added, referencing her social media accounts and the efforts of some Sudanese news websites including al-Rakoba and others that republished her censored column, which included harsh criticisms for the government’s response to the protests.

After her release today, Elnoor told me, “I continue to do my work because with every day I become more certain I am doing something great.”

In an apparent attempt to stop censored coverage being shared online, authorities on December 21 blocked access to social media websites like Facebook, Twitter, and the communication app WhatsApp, CPJ documented at the time.

Images from the protests shared online have galvanized support across the country. Activists and journalists have posted photos and videos on Facebook and Twitter, later shown by regional and international media, that show large number of protesters and police responding to the unrest with brutal force, including tear gas and live bullets.

“It is a cat and mouse game every day to get online to do your work as a journalist,” local freelance journalist and press freedom advocate Abdelgadir Mohammed Abdelgadir told me. Abdelgadir, who has previously written for CPJ about censorship in Sudan, lamented the slow speed of filtered internet using tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs.)

According to Abdelgadir, most of the reporters covering demonstrations use their mobiles to take photos and videos, but those materials are increasingly hard to verify and post online because users need a stable connection and a way to bypass the country’s internet provider’s block on social media sites.

As well as cutting access to the internet and censoring the press, authorities have arrested more than 800 protesters, including several critical journalists, according to reports.

On January 3, NISS agents detained journalist Saleh for two days because of his vocal support in media interviews of the demonstrations and for publicly protesting the government’s censorship efforts and attempts to downplay the number of killed protesters.

Kamal Karrar and Ghurashi Awad from the Sudanese Communist Party-owned Almidan, who were arrested in early January, remain in custody on unspecified charges, the local press freedom group Sudanese Journalists Network reported. And as of yesterday, journalist Okail Ahmed Naim, who was arrested from his Khartoum home on January 10, remained in custody, according to Alrakooba and the Sudanese Journalists Network. NISS has also stopped distribution of his paper, the network reported.

Saleh told me that he criticized the government’s denial about casualties in interviews with international broadcasters because he knew that authorities could control local print and local TV media and that the public are not able to access the internet.

“Before going after demonstrators, police officers usually go after TV journalists. Those with a camera first, then those with cell phones. I was arrested before, for speaking up. It is a matter of principle for me. It is my duty to my fellow journalists to defend their press freedom,” Saleh told me yesterday. Today, he was back behind bars.