Press freedom in Sudan is rapidly deteriorating, with confiscation of newspapers by the security agency becoming a norm. The scope of violations committed against publications and journalists by the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) is widening by the day.
Since early May, the NISS has confiscated more than 14 editions of different newspapers in Sudan, suspended more than 13 journalists from writing in newspapers, and identified about 20 taboo topics not to be tackled by the press.
Newspapers confiscated by the NISS since early May:
- On May 1 and 2, the NISS confiscated Al-Jarida from the printing press.
- On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, the NISS confiscated Al-Midan after printing was completed.
- On May 6, the NISS confiscated Al-Midan and Al-Jarida after printing was completed.
- On May 7, the NISS confiscated Al-Tayar after printing was completed.
- On May 8, 10, 13, and 15, the NISS confiscated Al-Midan after printing was completed.
- On May 17, the NISS halted printing of Al-Midan.
- On May 11, 12, and 14, the NISS confiscated Al-Jarida after printing was completed.
- On May 18, the NISS confiscated Akhir Lahza from the printing press.
Every confiscated newspaper results in losses of between 10,000 and 15,000 Sudanese pounds (equivalent to US$330 and US$5,000) in printing costs, even without factoring in other operational expenses including rental of premises, wages and salaries, travel expenses, and advertisement costs. In addition, these newspapers suffer a moral blow and lose the confidence of their readership because of their repeated no-shows on newsstands--which they are unable to explain because the government bans newspapers from discussing censorship.
By confiscating newspapers, the security agency aims to cause a significant financial loss and force the newspapers either to go out of business or to comply with its instructions.
On May 15, the NISS arrested for the second time this month prominent journalist, university professor of media, and editor-in-chief of the suspended Al-Adwa newspaper Faisal Mohamed Saleh. He was interrogated at the State Security Prosecution several hours after his arrest. A police complaint was issued against him under Article 94 of the Criminal Code on resisting a law enforcement officer.
Saleh was released on bail pending further investigations, with a hearing set for June 11. Conviction under Article 94 is punishable by approximately one month of jail time and a fine.
Between April 25 and May 11, Saleh was told to appear at the security agency daily because of a statement he made on Al-Jazeera TV in which he criticized a speech by President Omar al-Bashir as escalating the language of war.
"The security personnel came to my house and my office more than once during the day and in the evening on Wednesday, April 25. I wasn't at home," Saleh said. "Around 8 p.m., they came to my house again and told me I was wanted by the security agency. I joined them outside and went with them to the premises of the security agency. I was questioned about my comments regarding the president's speech in Al-Abyad City to Al-Jazeera's 6 p.m. newscast of Thursday, April 19. There was not much to say since they already had the news bulletin recorded and I also repeated my comments to them. They told me that such comments were not fit for media and it was better to communicate them to the authorities by other means and that I should be conservative when speaking to foreign media outlets and should not talk about certain issues except to local media. They also told me that I used some inappropriate words. I replied to all that. The interrogation lasted until midnight. I was asked to come back on Thursday morning to continue the interrogation which they insisted on calling a 'dialogue.'"
Saleh continued to report daily to the security agency premises in Khartoum North for 11 days. On the 12th day, however, he decided not to go to the security agency premises and posted his intention on local websites. The next morning, he was arrested and kept in the security agency premises for about nine hours without interrogation.
Journalists banned from writing per NISS orders
In addition to the direct censorship exercised by the NISS on newspapers and other publications, the NISS instructs management boards and editors-in-chief of newspapers to suspend certain journalists from writing. Should a newspaper not comply with NISS orders, it would face confiscation and possible suspension. Editors-in-chief report that they were instructed by the security agency not to publish the work of certain journalists or their news outlets will be closed.
At last count, the following journalists were suspended:
- Haidar al-Makashfi, editorial consultant at Al-Sahafa
- Zuhair al-Siraj, columnist at Al-Jarida
- Abdullah al-Sheikh, former editor-in-chief of multiple papers
- Abu Zar Ali al-Amin, writer at the suspended Rai Al-Shaab and at Al-Jarida
- Fayez al-Salik, Al-Jarida
- Amal Habbani, Al-Jarida
- Mujahed Abdullah, Alwan
- Essam Jafar, Alwan
- Rasha Awad, Al-Jarida
- Ashraf Abdul Aziz, Al-Jarida
- Al-Tahir Abu Jawhara, Al-Jarida
- Mohammad Mahmoud Al-Subhi, Al-Jarida
- Abdul Salam al-Qarai, Al-Jarida
Banning journalists from writing is a weapon used by the security agency to deprive journalists of their livelihoods and income in order to coerce them into obedience.
The security agency sends a daily letter to editors-in-chief in Khartoum containing a list of taboo topics. "The list of red lines is long and renewed on a daily basis," said journalist Idris al-Douma, the managing editor of Al-Jarida. "We usually abide by the directives of the security agency and have never disregarded them. Yet, the security agency still disrupts the printing of the newspaper. We do not know the reason behind such deliberate disruption. We believe that Al-Jarida newspaper is targeted by the security agency but we do not know why," Al-Douma said.
Security agency censorship takes different forms, including orders communicated to the editor-in-chief or the managing editor over the phone not to publish about certain topics that the agency considers taboo.
"I received an evening phone call from the Intelligence and Security Services on Saturday, May 5," said Madiha Abdullah, editor-in-chief of the critical Al-Midan. "They told me over the phone that the newspaper must not contain articles that criticize the performance of the security agency, the armed forces, or the police, and must not criticize the president, and that the newspaper must not discuss the situation of civil liberties and press freedoms, problems in the government of the state of Gedaref [in Eastern Sudan] or the dismissal of the governor," she said. "Previously, they had warned against criticizing the performance of the army and the violations committed at the hands of the police, uniformed forces, and the security agency, along with a list of taboo subjects. However, we usually do not abide by these directives, as they are too numerous and restrictive and violate our right to publish and the people's right to access information."