Sudanese authorities have this year been unrelenting in their quest to silence independent media by arresting and harassing journalists, and censoring both print and broadcast media, Amnesty International said today.
The organization documented the arrest and detention of at least 15 journalists between January and October 2018 by the government’s National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISS). In addition, the entire print run of 10 newspapers was confiscated on at least 27 occasions. Al Jareeda, one of the last independent newspapers, has been confiscated at least 13 times this year.
“Since the beginning of 2018 the Government of Sudan, through its security machinery, has been unrelenting in its crackdown on press freedom by attacking journalists and media organizations,” said Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
“Instead of embracing freedom of expression, the hostility directed towards independent media shows the lengths to which the Sudanese authorities will go to silence dissidence.”
Journalist arrests and intimidation
Virtually every month this year, journalists have been summoned and interrogated for several hours, with some being arrested and charged, and others imprisoned simply for doing their job.
On 29 October, the Press Court in Khartoum sentenced Zine El Abeen Al-A'jab, a former editor of Al Mustagila newspaper to one and a half months in prison, or a fine of 5,000 pounds ($104).
One of his charges was “dissemination of false information” under Article 66 of Sudan’s 1991 Criminal Act, for publishing two reports alleging that Sudan provides support to the Islamic state, and that the country received money from Qatar in 2015. He was also charged under Article 26 of the Press and Printed Materials Act for ‘responsibility of the editor-in-chief’.
On 23 and 16 October, five journalists - Osman Merghanie, Maha Al Telib, Lina Ygoub, Ashraf Abdel Aziz, and Shamel Al Nour - were summoned by the State Security Prosecutor and questioned about a meeting with the delegation of the European Union, European and United States diplomats on 2 October.
The journalists were taken to task for, among other things, tarnishing the reputation of the country and discussing the Press and Publication bill before it had been passed into law.
“The authorities are not only trampling on press freedom and freedom of expression in the country, but they are also violating all manner of rights that journalists should be enjoying without restrictions,” said Sarah Jackson.
Amnesty International documented three instances when Ashraf Abdel Aziz, Editor-in-Chief of the highly targeted Al Jareeda newspaper, was summoned and interrogated for hours in the months of September and October. In March, he was arrested, charged and sentenced to one month in jail, or a fine of 35,000 Sudanese Pounds (about $740) for a story on corruption in the government.
Maha Al Telib, a journalist with the Al Tayar newspaper, who has been summoned and interrogated three times this year told Amnesty International she was questioned about a variety of articles she had written, including on the Islamic State in Libya, the US-Sudan relationship, and the South Sudan peace process.
“The reasons for summoning her were clearly arbitrary and she was asked to reveal her news sources during interrogations, which is outright unethical. This incessant harassment of journalists for reporting on pertinent events is forcing many reporters to self-censor for fear of being targeted by the authorities. No journalist should have to work under such circumstances,” said Sarah Jackson.
A couple of journalists were even banned from practicing journalism.
Salma Altigani, a UK-based Sudanese journalist told Amnesty International: “I was banned [by NISS] from writing for Akhbar Al Watan newspaper and Albaath Alsudani newspaper [in Sudan on 25 July]. Two months ago, I wrote an article about the genocide in Jebel Marra, Darfur for a Gulf country newspaper and the Sudanese ambassador in that country requested the newspaper to stop publishing my articles, and they informed me that I can't write for them anymore.”
Another journalist, Ahmed Younis, who writes for the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat was summoned and interrogated on 8 May and again on 10 June about articles on corruption in the Sudan Railway Corporation, confiscation of newspapers and political tensions within the ruling National Congress Party. This resulted in the revocation of his license to work in Sudan on 14 June. His license was reinstated in September.
Over the course of 2018, Amnesty International also noted an increase in pre-press censorship whereby newspaper editors a daily call from NISS agents to discuss their planned editorial content and are asked to justify their storylines.
NISS agents also often show up at newspaper printing presses to review each edition ordering editors to drop certain stories before publication, or altogether confiscate entire print-runs.
“Journalists and the media remain a vital component in realizing the right to freedom of information and must be allowed to do their work without such interference and intimidation,” said Sarah Jackson.
Between May and October, the Al Jareeda newspaper was confiscated at least 13 times, Al Tayar was confiscated five times and Al Sayha four times. A host of other newspapers including Masadir, Al Ray Al Aam, Akhirlahza, Akhbar Al Watan, Al Midan, Al Garar and Al Mustuglia were each confiscated once or twice.
TV talk shows banned
The broadcast media has not been spared either.
On 10 October, the NISS suspended a political talk show - State of the Nation hosted by Sudania24 TV - after they interviewed a commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and he defended his militia against accusations of human rights violations.
On 31 August, another talk show on Omdurman TV was also banned after interviewing politicians who criticized a decision of the ruling National Congress Party to nominate President Omar Al-Bashir to stand for a third term in 2020.
“The Sudanese authorities must stop this shameful assault on freedom of expression and let journalists do their jobs in peace. Journalism is not a crime,” said Sarah Jackson.
“Sudan must amend the laws that are being used to trample on press freedom in the name of regulation, and instead enable and facilitate freedom of expression in the country.”
Amnesty International calls on the Sudanese government to immediately revise the Press and Printed Materials Act of 2009, to align it with international standards that allow freedom of the press and freedom of expression to flourish.