Press under attack in Sudan
27 Apr 12

“The press in Sudan is going through the most intense crackdown,” said Adil Color, a writer and editor at Al-Midan newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP). “If we publish an issue [of the newspaper] that is critical and includes topics the government is uncomfortable with — such as the conflicts in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan — they punish us by confiscating our next issue.”

Al-Midan’s print run has been confiscated on four different occasions in the last month, most recently on 24 April, but the newspaper remains defiant. For many years it has had to be distributed underground when the SCP was a banned in Sudan. The tabloid’s byline now reads “daily newspaper, but temporarily published on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday”.

In a recent contribution to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Blog, a Sudanese journalist and activist, Abdelgadir Mohamed Abdelgadir, claimed that the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) confiscates independent newspapers as a way of censoring the press.

This strategy, believes Abdelgadir “focuses on economic impoverishment —  leaving newspapers more vulnerable than ever.” Most newspapers in Sudan generate income from newspaper sales and advertisements, but independent newspapers that publish daring reports like Al-Midan and Al-Ayam depend on selling the few thousand copies they print, being unable to afford large print runs.

“Al-Midan does not get any advertisements from government companies like other newspapers, and private companies fear repercussions, so they also do not approach us for advertising,” said Color.

The “vulnerability” referred to in CPJ’s blogpost is best seen when editor-in-chiefs are pressured into making decisions for the benefit of the newspaper and the dozens of employees . When the Al-Jareeda newspaper was confiscated on 27 and 29 March because it wouldn’t stop publishing the daily columns by Zuhair Al-Siraj, a Canada-based Sudanese columnist who is critical of the government in his writings, the financial losses forced the newspaper’s management to cancel the column.

“Newspapers are not really given a choice, they can continue publishing as long as they do not allow certain journalists to write,” said Salih Mahmoud, a lawyer who is part of the newly-established Sudanese Council to Defend Rights (SCDR).

Starting this Tuesday, another writer, Heydar Al-Mokashy, will not be able to write for a week.

Mahmoud points out that the topics the state considers red lines are usually national issues that touch upon the future of the country. The booby-trapped subjects include: the wars in Blue Nile, Southern Kordofan and Darfur, and human-rights abuses but the list of banned topics grows every day.

Alawia Mukhtar, a journalist at the Al-Sahafa newspaper was moved from the patch she used to cover, South Sudan, after the paper’s management began receiving text messages from the NISS demanding it remove and/or halt the publication of any news about South Sudan.

“I cannot write about South Sudan because I can’t publish the opinions of sources from there, ” says a frustrated Mukhtar, who claims she has been accused of being part of the banned political party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North Sudan Faction, (SPLM-N) because her writings introduced her to many SPLM-N sources.

Recently, the speaker of parliament and a well-known Sudanese official both said that any journalist who interviews a source from a rebel movement is betraying his nation. Sudan’s Vice-President, Ali Osman Mohamed Taha,  has spoken about a fifth column that is under scrutiny in light of the current clashes between Sudan and South Sudan, accused of spreading rumours that there is a lack of petroleum and other needs as war looms. Mukhtar thinks they are referring to journalists and that this is a direct threat.

From her perspective, Muktar feels trapped in a world where a text message sent to her boss, the editor-in-chief, can deem a story she worked on for hours “unpublishable”, but at least she is still able to see her byline in print.

Mujahid Abdullah  has worked as a journalist since he graduated from university. From 2005, he was published in four different newspapers and was a well-known name until he was banned from writing in all print newspapers in Sudan. Abdullah says: “The ban came about 20 days ago, I feel like I was confiscated  along with my pen, I’m waiting to be returned to the newsstand.”

Abdullah’s last job was writing for Alwan, a newspaper that was suspended for about 2 months from January to March this year. “I feel like my civil and constitutional rights and my right to make a living were taken away from me,” he adds.

The decision to ban him from writing was delivered orally, as are many NISS decisions. When newspapers are forced to kill stories or an edition is confiscated the message is normally delivered by an NISS officer talking directly to the editor-in-chief or in a short and succinct phone call.

In theory, the NISS does not have the power to confiscate newspapers, or to ban a newspapers and journalist or in fact, carry out any act against the press. If it believes that a certain journalist of newspaper is impacting national security, the security apparatus should file a complaint at the Press and Publications Council, the only body responsible for all print media.

“When we asked the Press and Publication Council about our case, they said the NISS does not tell us when they carry out such things,” says Adil Color.

Reem Abbas is a Sudanese freelance journalist. She has been published in Inter-Press Service (IPS), IRIN news, the Women International Perspective, (the WIP), Menassat and daily Sudanese newspapers. She tweets at @ReemShawkat