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Censorship, prosecutions and extended detention signal steady decline in media freedom

Censorship, prosecutions and extended detention signal steady decline in media freedom

Published on Friday 12 August 2011. Updated on Friday 9 September 2011.
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Reporters Without Borders condemns the steady deterioration in media freedom in Sudan where all the copies of an Arabic-language daily were seized five days ago in Khartoum, a group of journalists have been harassed for weeks because of their coverage of a serious human rights violation and others remain in detention.

Already ranked last year among the world’s 10 worst countries as regards respect for journalists (172nd out of 178 countries in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index), Sudan keeps sinking lower and lower. The first half of 2011 has been marked by censorship, arrests, prosecutions, arbitrary detention and closures of newspapers.

“Is President Omar Al-Bashir trying to base his behaviour towards the media on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s in Iran?” Reporters Without Borders asked. “The street protests in February in the wake of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and Sudan’s partition, consummated when South Sudan became independent on 9 July, seem to have convinced the authorities in Khartoum to clamp down much harder on freedom of expression.

“News is controlled, the media are under surveillance and journalists are harassed by the security forces. The international community must condemn this disturbing trend with much more force and must press for a commitment from the government to respect media freedom.”

Increase in intimidation and censorship by the security forces

Without offering any explanation, the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) confiscated all the copies of the next two issues of the Arabic-language daily Al-Ahdath from the printers on 7 August. The newspaper had been publishing a series of articles entitled “The days of Carlos in Khartoum” about a Venezuelan terrorist known as “Carlos the Jackal” who was captured in Sudan in 1994.

The newspapers Ajras Al-Hurriya and Al-Midan suffered the same kind of prior censorship last April.

Khalid Ibrahim Ewaiss, a writer and political activist who works as a journalist for Al-Arabiya, was detained on 8 July after participating in a political protest. He was questioned and handed over to the police, who warned him that the security forces had filed complaints against him. He was released on bail and told he could not leave the country but has not so far been formally charged.

As previously reported, seven journalists and media contributors are due to be tried or are still the subject of judicial investigations for reporting human rights activist Safia Ishag’s torture and rape by security personnel. They are Faisal Mohamed Salih, Babikir Omer Al-Garrai, Abdalla Al-Shaik, Mohamed Latif, Faiz Al-Selaik, Mohamed Osman and Dr. Nahid Al-Hassan.

Two women journalists, Amal Habani and Fatima Ghazali, were already given one-month jail sentences for the same reason. Both were released after 48 hours after bail was paid. This campaign of harassment and prosecutions is aimed at deterring journalists from reporting human rights violations by the security forces.

Licences withdrawn from newspapers with South Sudan links

The National Press and Publication Council announced on 8 July, the eve of South Sudan’s independence, that it was withdrawing the licences of six newspapers owned partially by South Sudan citizens (even if they had only a minority share). These newspapers are now closed for good. Article 28 of Sudan’s 2009 press law says only Sudanese citizens may own newspapers. People of southern origin living in the north are effectively stripped of their citizenship.

Ajras Al-Hurriya, an Arabic-language daily affiliated to the SPLM and five English-language dailies – Khartoum Monitor, Juba Post, Sudan Tribune, Advocate and Democrat – are affected by the measure. Most of them had links with South Sudan or were critical of the government in Khartoum. Despite the facade of legality, the decision is an act of direct censorship aimed at banning media that criticized the authorities.

Journalists facing possibly death penalty

Arrested in May 2010 and tortured, Abuzar Ali Al-Amin, the deputy editor of the now defunct opposition daily Rai Al-Shaab, was given a five-year jail sentence in July 2010 that was later reduced to one year. He should have been released on 3 July but the security forces demanded a new judicial investigation of articles he published in the paper, which was affiliated to the opposition Popular Congress Party and supported (South Sudan’s) Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).

But the newspaper no longer has any legal existence as it was suspended on 16 May 2010 and its licence was rescinded on 8 July 2011, so the new proceedings against Al-Amin are baseless, arbitrary and illegal, and are designed solely to keep him in detention. He is facing the possibility of life imprisonment or even the death penalty under article 50 of the criminal code for allegedly trying to undermine the constitutional system.

Reporters Without Borders is outraged by his continuing detention and calls for his immediate release. More information.

A short-wave radio station based in the Netherlands that is the only station specializing in covering the situation in Darfur, Radio Dabanga has never been legally recognized by the Sudanese authorities. Abdelrahman Adam, a journalist who works for the station in Khartoum, and six other persons accused of being local employees of the radio have been held since 30 October 2010 as a result of a complaint filed by a NISS official.

Gafar Alsabki Ibrahim, a journalist with the independent Arabic-language daily Al-Sahafa, was arrested on 3 November 2010 for allegedly also working with Radio Dabanga. All of the station’s employees are accused of divulging state secrets, undermining the constitutional system, calling for resistance and inciting sedition under articles 24, 25, 26, 53 and 50 of the 1991 criminal code and articles 18, 42 and 44 of the 2001 communications law. The article 50 violation carries the death penalty.

Picture : AFP/Ashraf Shazly

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