Censorship returns to Sudan



 
Amira al-Tahhawi, MENASSAT's Cairo correspondent and a Sudan-watcher, looks into the return of government censorship in Sudan after several years of relative press freedom.
 
Sudan, AU summit 2006 © Freddy Maro
Journalists covering an African Union summit in Khartoum in 2006. © Freddy Maro

CAIRO, April 10, 2008 (MENASSAT) – A few days after Dr. Kamal Obeid, Sudan's Minister of State for Information, met with a number of high-ranking officials in early February, censorship was back with a vengeance in Sudan – two and a half years after it was officially lifted in July 2005.

Once again, Sudanese journalists had to get used to officers of the National Security Service barging into newsrooms and print shops in the evenings in order to inspect the next day's copy for unwanted articles.

The reason for this sudden reversal of press freedom in Sudan was that a number of newspapers had referred to the support Khartoum had provided to a failed coup attempt against the president of neighboring Chad.

Not surprisingly, the crackdown focused on privately-owned newspapers and those affiliated to parties other then the ruling National Congress Party.

Many newspapers, including Sawt al-Umma, which is close to the al-Umma Nationalist Party headed by former Prime Minister al-Sadeq al-Mahdi, and al-Midan, affiliated with Sudanese Communist Party, and the independent al-Ahdas, were subject to prior censorship.

Opposition newspaper Raey al-Shaaeb was banned from publishing entirely on February 14 after it tried to run a column accusing the government of backing the Chadian rebels.

Sudan had lowered the level of press censorship considerably in 2005, after a peace agreement with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) ended a 20-year civil war between the South and the North.

Elections

Just two weeks ago, al-Midan newspaper ran a statement warning against the return of "tribal censorship" after some articles were banned from al-Ayyam, al-Sahifa, al-Sudani and al-Midan newspapers, condemning "the government's disregard of democracy and its obvious abuse of freedom of expression and human rights."

Fathi al-Daw, a Sudanese journalist living in the U.S. who saw one of his articles for al-Ahdas newspaper banned, told MENASSAT, "I see no great difference between what is called tribal censorship and oversight censorship. Officers from the security authorities come to the newspaper at any time they please and delete any subject they don't like – without giving any reason, of course."

According to al-Daw, the Kahrtoum regime is using a number of methods to intimidate the press, going from direct censorship over lawsuits under the Press and Publication Law to withdrawing much-needed government advertisements from critical newspapers.

The government is not worried about any baklash, said al-Daw, "because the Press and Publication Committee is a domesticated entity headed by Ali Shamo and Dr. Hashem al-Jaz and so is the Press Syndicate under Mohieddine Titawi. So they know that no action will be taken against them."

The return of censorship is particularly worrying since Sudan is supposed to have its first democratic elections in more than twenty years next year.

Although now a government ally, the SPLM has publicly expressed its concern and disapproval of the government's policy.

"How do you go to the elections with the media controlled by the state? There will be no equal opportunities," SPLM Deputy Secretary-General Yasir Arman told Reuters on April 5.

Websites have remained relatively unaffected by the new wave of government censorship but as Fathi al-Daw pointed out, the impact of the Internet on the Sudanese is negligible.

Fighting back

Websites dealing with Sudanese politics are mostly read by Sudanese who have emigrated abroad, many of whom belonged to the opposition, al-Daw said. "Those who have remained in the country are either regime supporters or too poor to buy a computer or even to go to an Internet cafe."

Still, the independent press is fighting back in its own way.

Last month, the authorities banned al-Midan newspaper from publishing because it had reported on the outcome of several lawsuits launched by the government against independent newspapers.

"The al-Khartoum Shamal court acquitted editor in chief al-Tijani al-Tayyeb in a case raised by the security authorities about an article that dealt with the presence of terrorist camps in Sudan. The court had verified this news and found it to be true," the article read

The court made a similar ruling in a case the editor in chief of al-Sahifa, al-Tayyeb Aba Baker.

Al-Midan has taken to publishing any articles banned from its print edition in red on its website; it also sends the banned articles to its readers via email.

A number of independent newspapers also ran front page prison pictures of Adel Baz, editor in chief of al-Ahdath, looking tired on the floor of his cell, and Sayyed Ahmad Khalife, editor in chief of al-Watan, who was pictured wiping the floor of his prison cell.

Both editors in chief were arrested last February because of an article about promotions and dismissals in the top ranks of the Sudanese police force.

The following day, more than 50 journalists organized a protest in the capital. They also declared a boycott of any news coming from the police.