A vehicle of Sudan's Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group is stationed in the south of Sudan's capital Khartoum on April 17, 2023. RSF forces have detained and beaten journalists. (AFP)

Journalists shot, beaten, and harassed covering conflict between Sudan’s rival military groups

On May 1, freelance Sudanese photographer Faiz Abubaker was filming clashes in Khartoum when, he says, he was shot in the back by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group vying for power with the Sudanese military. The RSF then held him for three hours at a checkpoint, where he was threatened at knife point and beaten. 

“I was ready to die,” he told CPJ. “They accused me of being a spy for the Sudanese army, and when they searched my Facebook and found out that I am a freelance journalist who is not working for a specific outlet, they let me go.”  

Battles between RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), former allies who jointly seized power in a 2021 coup, have made headlines around the world. Hundreds of civilians have died, hundreds of thousands have been displaced, and thousands of foreigners have been evacuated. But Sudanese journalists have been hampered in covering the events since fighting broke out April 15 due to tensions over the Sudanese army’s integration of the RSF. The two sides signed a shaky ceasefire in late May, but it has been repeatedly breached. 

According to reporters on the ground and statements by the local trade union, the Sudanese Journalists Syndicate, journalists have been beaten, detained, and interrogated. While the RSF appears to be responsible for most of the incidents, SAF forces also beat BBC correspondent Mohamed Othman last month, the syndicate said. (Othman and the BBC did not return requests for comment; CPJ’s emails requesting comment from the SAF and the RSF were not returned.) 

In general, the fighting has proved disruptive to newsgathering as many journalists, along with other civilians, have been trapped at home or work due to violence on the street. There have also been internet blackouts

On May 16, RSF soldiers detained Al-Jazeera journalists Ahmed Fadl and Rashid Gibril at a checkpoint in Khartoum. The journalists were held overnight. The next day, RSF soldiers raided Fadl’s house, where Gibril happened to be at the time, and threatened and beat the journalists and stole their cell phones, money, clothes, and Fadl’s car. On May 18, RSF forces also beat and robbed freelance journalist Eissa Dafaallah while he was filming the aftermath of fighting in the city of Nyala.  

Salem Mahmoud, a correspondent for Saudi broadcaster Al-Arabiya, was delivering a live report on April 29 when an RSF military vehicle parked nearby and interrupted his coverage. Video of the report shows RSF soldiers asking Mahmoud about his work before driving away. 

“Moving between Omdurman and Khartoum to cover the news is very difficult,” Mahmoud told CPJ in a phone interview. “Whenever we go anywhere, we come across a checkpoint where soldiers stop us, ask us who we work for, what we are reporting on. You never feel safe while working. They can arrest you at any moment. And when they do, they can confiscate your equipment before letting you go.” 

News organizations have also been targeted. On April 15, the RSF raided and seized control of the state television headquarters in Omdurman and stopped its broadcast. (The army denied that this happened at the time, according to Reuters.) Fifteen journalists and media workers were trapped inside the building with no food, Sudanese Journalists Syndicate chairman Abdel Moniem Abu Idris told CPJ. One group was released after two weeks and another after three following negotiations with RSF soldiers. As of late May, the broadcast has not resumed and RSF soldiers are still in control of two state television buildings, he said. 

Hala 96, a local independent radio station, shut down due to signal interruptions on April 15, according to the outlet’s social media officer Mohamed Hashem. He told CPJ that the station’s employees believe that RSF forces occupied the building weeks later when a widely circulated video showed armed individuals inside using the office equipment and threatening the military.  

According to the syndicate, closures like these have forced dozens of journalists out of their jobs.

Some journalists have also fled. Freelance journalist Ismail Kushkush was trapped in his apartment in downtown Khartoum for over a week with no electricity. He covered the conflict from inside his apartment, before fleeing to Egypt. 

“We knew that the building was surrounded by RSF soldiers, so we were concerned that they might storm the building and take over our apartments,” he told CPJ. “Personally, I was concerned about them finding out I am a reporter since I heard from one resident in the building who spoke to an RSF soldier that they wanted to make sure that there were no SAF soldiers or reporters in the building. So, when I was leaving the building, I hid my phone in my pants so they don’t find any of the footage I took from my balcony.”  

Abubaker, the journalist who was shot by RSF forces, is now also in Egypt. 

“Once my wound got better, I went to Cairo temporarily. Even though there isn’t a lot of opportunities for us [journalists] over there, but it is just safer,” he said. “Honestly, if the current clashes continue in Sudan for a much longer time, I think I will have to go anywhere in Europe and try to start a new life from scratch. It is just too dangerous in Sudan right now.” 

Editor’s note: The spelling of Faiz Abubaker’s last name has been corrected in the first and 14th paragraphs.