A man in military uniform and a coronavirus mask seated in an elaborate chair leans over to talk with a man in a suit and a coronavirus mask in the neighboring chair.
General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, chairman of Sudan's sovereign council, is pictured in the front row, left, speaking with Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok during a reception ceremony in the capital Khartoum on October 8, 2020. The transitional government has tightened cybercrime legislation that journalists fear could be used to punish online reporting and commentary. (Ebrahim Hamid/AFP)

Sudan tightens cybercrime law as army pursues “fake news”

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Dura Qambo was on vacation in Egypt in July when a friend called to warn her to stop criticizing the Sudanese army online, she told CPJ. Earlier that day, the army had announced on Facebook that it had appointed a Special Commissioner in May to sue anyone who insults or defames the military on the internet.

“My friend told me to take care because he heard from a contact in the intelligence service that the military was targeting me and other journalists with this statement,” said Qambo, a 42-year-old Sudanese writer and former reporter who wrote for BBC Arabic before going freelance.

The army’s announcement coincided with a spate of threats to prosecute journalists under Sudan’s cybercrime law, according to CPJ interviews. That law—a relic from the repressive era of former President Omar Al Bashir—criminalized spreading false information online.

Sudan’s joint civilian and military transitional government made the law more punitive in an amendment this summer. Military officials and their supporters frequently dismiss reporting that puts them in a bad light as “fake news,” and Sudanese journalists and activists told CPJ that they fear the army is weaponizing the charge to silence criticism, rather than fight disinformation.

Mohamad Nyala, a member of the secretariat of the local press freedom group Sudanese Journalists Network, told CPJ that eight journalists have reported receiving threatening calls from people claiming to be military officers since May. All described being told to delete online articles and social media posts that criticized the army, or else they would be hurt or sued, he said.

“The problem is that journalists don’t speak out about these threats. They only talk about these incidents to their close friends,” said Nyala.

Prison sentences for numerous offenses in the 2018 Law on Combating Cybercrimes were increased in a July 13 amendment, according to a memo on the Ministry of Justice  website. The maximum prison term under Article 23, which analysts say includes vague prohibitions on “spreading fake news” to threaten public safety, was raised to four years instead of one.

In an interview with CPJ, Abdel Rahman, an advisor to the Ministry of Justice, said that the ministry proposed the amendments to the government and maintained that they do not undermine free speech. He insisted that anyone can criticize the security services as long as they’re not intentionally spreading disinformation.

 “If you spread fake news or rumors about the military with the intention of harming the organization, then yes, there could be a problem and legal repercussions,” he said.

The army has not disclosed the identity of its new commissioner to CPJ or human rights groups, and it’s not clear if the appointment has resulted in specific prosecutions. CPJ contacted Taher Abu Hagar, the spokesperson for the Sudanese army, for comment, and provided written questions at his request, but received no response.

In May, as CPJ has previously noted, journalists Aida Abdel Qadir and Lena Sabeel reported facing an official investigation after they documented an alarming death toll from COVID-19 in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur—prompting the province’s military governor Malik Khojali to threaten legal action against “anyone publishing false information.”

Sabeel, a journalist by training, was employed as the director of media relations in the Ministry of Health when she wrote an article about the health crisis for the local outlet Al Moustaql. She told CPJ in November that while the investigation opened by the public prosecutor at the time was eventually closed, she is still fighting a civil lawsuit related to the disclosure of information intended for a superior; legal documents seen by CPJ indicate that suit was filed by a senior ministry official. CPJ attempted to contact the official for comment via the health ministry, but the request was not acknowledged.   

Sabeel and Abdel Qadir were among those to alert the Sudanese Journalists Network of threats from unidentified military intelligence officials amid their legal challenges in May.

Mohammad Fekhi, a former journalist and a member of the transitional government known as the sovereign council, told CPJ that military officers could face charges if there is credible evidence that they’re threatening reporters. 

“We need names to corroborate facts. Who is calling these journalists? We need to know in order to take measures to protect them,” he said.

But observers say that enhancing protections in the cybercrime legislation would also help safeguard journalists and freedom of expression. Mohammad Osman, a researcher monitoring Sudan for Human Rights Watch, told CPJ that the law needs definitions for terms like upholding public order and morality.

Osman added that the law doesn’t clarify how intent is defined or recognized and could easily be abused by the police and Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a powerful paramilitary that was subsumed by the state after spearheading mass killings in Darfur, according to news reports, analysts, and rights groups.

“The RSF hasn’t made a public stunt like the army. It has remained very quiet. The same thing with the police, but clearly there is a law they can utilize at any moment,” Osman said.

Nasif Saleh, a former journalist for Al-Jazeera Arabic, told CPJ that he fears the RSF could use the law against him. He is currently the founder and operator of MonteCarro, a platform for Sudanese citizen journalists that is frequently sourced by local media and Al-Jazeera Arabic. Saleh said that the outlet is still ad hoc and self-financed, but that it adheres to professional standards of journalism.

However, fervent RSF supporters regularly accuse him of publishing false news on the social media pages of MonteCarro, he said. One example accusation reviewed by CPJ came from an account that frequently posted support for the RSF. Saleh said that accusations have become more frequent since he published an article on September 19 alleging that a secret RSF prison was functioning outside government oversight.

“RSF officers never slander me themselves. The threats always come from civilian personalities,” he told CPJ. 

At the moment, Saleh lives abroad but declined to disclose his location for fear of reprisal from opponents. He intends to return to Sudan, he said, but he is afraid of being sued for spreading false news.

Other journalists say that Sudan’s restrictive laws won’t deter them from criticizing authorities. Dura Qambo, the ex-BBC reporter, told CPJ that she has allies in the streets and in the government. Most journalists, she insisted, weren’t intimidated by the army’s warning.

“They just want us to back off because they’re afraid of free speech,” she said. “They’re the ones cornered, not us.”