New magazine Atar fills information void in Sudan

Atar, a digital magazine distributed via email and WhatsApp, first came to my attention late last October. I was in a dimly lit New York cafe, warmed by the company of a group of Sudanese diaspora; artists, activists, journalists, nursing hot teas and wounded souls. As it often does, the question of obtaining high quality Sudani news bubbled up. “Have you heard about Atar yet?’ someone asked. I hadn’t, yet. But this interaction was instructive. With their formal website still under construction, word-of-mouth was one of the main ways this weekly Arabic (bi-monthly English) magazine was being found.

An initiative of the non-for-profit Sudan Facts Center for Journalism Services – founded by veteran journalist Arif Elsaui – Atar began publishing on 12 October 2023, six months into the war against civilians in Sudan. Co-managing director Amar Jamal told Index it was a project borne of necessity.

“We had been talking about theory for a long time,” Jamal said. “But with the current situation, we realised there won’t be any more media outlets in Sudan left.”

Sudan Facts Center had been running fellowships for young professional journalists, but the crisis spurred them into pushing forward with their greater ambitions. “If we were going to wait until the perfect conditions, we would be waiting a long time. Let us start, and improve as we go along,” Jamal noted.

Since October, the Atar team has produced 28 Arabic editions and four in English. Inspired by The Continent, another popular African digital news magazine, Atar – with the tagline “Sudan in Perspective” – is currently distributed through Telegram, WhatsApp, Signal and email.

“There hasn’t been a day when our distribution list hasn’t grown,” Jamal said.

Stories range from investigations into “Sudan’s labyrinth of torture centres” to the stories of those fleeing the war north through Egypt. Early editions reported on the daily experiences of Sudanese people during the conflict, how they “eat, drink and sleep” and their “daily heroism”, while more recent releases focus on the mutual aid infrastructure keeping people alive.

Not only was the content of the story important to get right, Jamal said, but the voice and tone of the publication was given thorough consideration.

“We stay away from tragic language. While we are writing about death, we write about it with heroism.” Not necessarily out of a desire to give readers hope, “but to give people an encouraging word”.

Atar began with three editors in Nairobi – Arif Elsaui, Amar Jamal and Mohammed Alsadiq – and four correspondents. The first releases were focused on the written word, delivering vital information via dense blocks of text, not unlike the traditional Sudanese newspaper. But this model changed after the team took stock 10 weeks into the project. Over the new year period, “we took a break to review the structure and design, expand our pool of reporters, institutionalise the project so it wouldn’t fail,” Amar said.

Today, Atar is delivered by 24 reporters and seven editors. The growth is palpable, not only in the range of stories, but in their design. The structure and voice of Atar is unique, deliberately so. “This is not a newspaper, delivering daily stories,” Amar makes clear. Atar is focused on analysis, curation, about showing the verification and the context for your average reader to make sense of unfolding events.

“The need for a newspaper has changed in the age of social media,” said Jamal, noting that in an age of camera phones, the recording of events has been democratised.

“What is needed now is the verification and context. That is our ambition. Respecting the intellect of the Sudanese reader, and presenting material that yes, might be difficult, but it has value. The value it has is in its truth.”

Atar is providing a home for fact-based news in a prohibitive information landscape. There are few players in Sudan today, fewer still after the state suspended operations of three satellite channels this April, Saudi state-owned broadcasters Al Arabiya and Al Hadath and UAE-owned Sky News Arabia.

“All of the correspondents that we began with have had to leave the country,” Amar admitted. “It’s very difficult to write from the inside.” But difficult is not impossible, and Atar consistently manages to publish original stories from the ground.

“Sometimes, stories are written under the Atar byline to protect the journalist,” Jamal said, describing how their local correspondents find ways to contact sources and file stories even in the most challenging circumstances. “Even when the internet was cut off,” he said. “You just adjust your investigative style.”

Atar’s popularity now means that they are regularly approached by writers, reporters and potential sources as an outlet for news, with some sending in fully written pieces for publication. Atar pride themselves on having an open-door policy, allowing anyone to submit material via phone or email, but only work that goes through their fact-checking system will be included in the magazine. The volume of engagement and interest is a “scream from the people,” Jamal said. Even a 14-year-old girl sent a piece with some news. These are people’s voices who are not heard and Atar wants to be a home for them.

Such grounded local reporting cultivates intense loyalty and support, such as in the case of the small island of Dagarti. “It has maybe only 300, 400 inhabitants,” Jamal said. “Nobody had written about these people before. But when our journalist went to do a follow-up story, she said the whole island waits for Thursday so they can read Atar.”

What next for Atar? The team has big ambitions. Their English-language edition was always part of the plan, because “it isn’t just the Sudanese reader that cares about Sudan.” They have recently moved into a new, larger office in Nairobi, with talk of a live studio arm, events and more. Their approach is experimental, and with enough funding in the bank for the moment, Jamal is excited about the future.

Jamal is not the only one. If this is what the Sudanese people can do in the most inhospitable of circumstances, imagine the possibilities once the war is over.

Internet shutdowns: Sudan’s censorship tool of choice

Dozens of people gather around the tax administration building in Khartoum East, not too far from Sudan’s military HQ. They are not queuing to submit their returns. They are there in order to get access to the internet from the building’s Wi-Fi network that they have somehow managed to hack and get its password.

This scene of young people sitting around buildings in downtown Khartoum and Khartoum University, along with the tea ladies, was a common sight after the government cut off the internet following the coup against the country’s civilian government in which Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok, his cabinet and most of his advisors were placed under house arrest.  They have since been reinstated – as has access to the internet – but it is clear who is really in charge.

These young WiFi-jackers give the password to newly arrived friends to enjoy a service that’s become very precious indeed.

Most of these people are young men and they have been doing this from the second week of the coup, when the Sudanese people woke up to the news of the arrest of the whole civilian government. Accompanying this was a near total blackout of the internet and the telephone network, which allowed only incoming international calls.

Kamal al-Zain, 45, is one of those who comes every day to the tax building from the outskirts of Khartoum.

“I used some cafes, but their internet is getting very expensive and it’s as great as this open one,” he told Index.

Al-Zain works at a private company in Khartoum but his work has stopped since the internet disappeared: “It has a direct impact on my work which depends on transferring money in dealing with customers using the internet.”

Al-Zain is also politically engaged with Sudan’s “resistance committees”. These pro-democracy neighbourhood-based committees emerged during the era of former dictator Omer al-Basher and organised the protests that toppled him in 2019. They have continued organising during the transitional period to Hamdok’s election and the protests against the coup of 25 October.

These committees, like most modern political bodies, normally use the internet to communicate and to announce for the schedules and dates of the protests on their social media sites.

“It’s become more difficult now to call for protests,” said al-Zain. “In the beginning I was afraid that the protests would be weak and that not many people would turn out, but I was wrong. We had to work on a strategy of door to door calling and sending text messages whenever the cellphone network is working.”

Many journalists working with online media outlets in Khartoum have lost their jobs following the internet blackout.

“I know some young journalists are now working as taxi drivers because their work has stopped,” said Haider el-Mukashfi, the general editor of al-Jareeda daily newspaper which stopped printing during the first week of the coup mainly because of the blackout but also because some key bridges get closed whenever there is a call for big protests, affecting its distribution.

The situation for companies has improved a little.

“You needed to let them know that you are a company not an individual to let you enjoy the service. We got our internet back with a new contract under the name of a new company,” said Majid al-Gaouni, the managing editor at the paper.

Shaza el-Shaikh, a journalist working for a Sudanese website, told Index on Censorship: “We are not working at the moment due to the internet cut off. They have decided to give me half of what they used to pay me.”

Others are using different tactic to get web access. I have had to book a room in a hotel in order to use its internet connection. Even that got cut off on 17 November when at least 14 protestors were killed by armed forces at a rally against the coup.

Communications in the country have been under military control since 2019 following the ousting of al-Basher. The military signed a power-sharing deal with the protest leaders in the autumn of that year and put the National Communications Authority (NCA) —the body that provides and regulates the internet—under their authority. It was previously under the remit of the ministry of information and communications.

The economic consequences of the blackout in Sudan are huge; some economic experts estimate that the telecommunications companies have been losing around US$6 million per day of which 40 per cent goes in VAT to the government.

Despite the seemingly huge loss for the government, cutting off the internet is the normal response whenever the government faces protests. It happened after the 3 June massacre in 2019 at a sit-in in protest at the army which resulted in more than a hundred deaths when bodies were dumped in the Nile, dozens were raped and many hundreds injured.

Protests that follow the government lifting subsidies and raising the prices of basics often lead to internet blackouts too.

It is not a new phenomenon.

In 2012 protests inspired by the Arab Spring Revolution began after an increase in bread and fuel prices and led to a blackout. However, the government unblocked some porn sites for days so that could distract youngsters hoping to keep them away from the protests; that didn’t work out. Normally, porn sites are blocked in Sudan due to sharia laws.

Al-Zain, along with many other people who had to travel long distances to just check their emails, are defiant.

“They think that we will stop our resistance by cutting off the internet, but they wrong, we have long experience of defying dictatorships for all those decades and we have created new ways to continue.”

Sudanese civil society calls for change to US digital technology sanctions

The campaign video features stories from Sudanese citizens negatively affected by the US sanctions

A group of Sudanese independent civil society members this week launched a campaign under the banner “The Sudanese Initiative to Lift US Technology Sanctions from Sudan”.

The campaign aims to educate the Sudanese public and American policy-makers about the negative impact of US sanctions on the free access to information communication technologies (ICTs) and the internet in Sudan. The launch marks a year-long advocacy effort that has included talks with US-based civil society groups and the US State Department.

The demands of the campaign is that the US government revisits its sanctions regime on Sudan, on the grounds that current sanctions negatively impact Sudanese citizens’ access to ICTs in a number of sectors, including educational institutions, pro-democracy civil society and humanitarian efforts that utilise geographic information system (GIS) technology.

Although the US announced a partial lifting of sanctions relating to educational exchange in early 2013, this targets research and the free flow of information, not personal use of communication technologies.

The objective of the campaign is to give a voice to, and learn from, the stories of a range of Sudanese citizens negatively affected by these US sanctions. In the campaign video, educators, students, crisis mappers, civil society members and technology professionals recount how US sanctions are limiting their free access to knowledge and information online.

Mohammed Hashim Kambal, the campaign’s coordinator, says: “Through talking to Sudanese citizens belonging to a wide variety of sectors it is clear that US sanctions not only hampers access to independent information but also access to knowledge and to aspects of the internet related to crowdsourcing and crisis mapping.”

He stresses, however: “ We want to be clear that this is not an appeal to lift all sanctions from the Sudanese regime that continues to commit human rights atrocities. This is an appeal to empower Sudanese citizens through improved access to ICTs so that they can be more proactive on issues linked to democratic transformation, humanitarian assistance and technology education — an appeal to make the sanctions smarter”.

For example, the Sudanese pro-democracy civil society is facing great limitations from the government and the Humanitarian Aid Commission (that oversees the work of NGOs), linked to accepting foreign funding. It is impossible to directly crowdfund from Sudanese diaspora groups because of US sanctions that don’t permit the transfer of funds to or from Sudan. They therefore have to organise crowdfunding in cooperation with active members the diaspora, who in turn collect funds and send them by hand to Sudan — a process that takes time and effort.

Additionally, crisis mapping, which was very useful during the last floods in August 2013, is limited in Sudan. Crisis mappers are not able to access or purchase tools and/or applications made by American companies, such as Google (including People Finder and Google Crisis Map) or products by Esri, an American company that specialises in GIS technology.

No Sudanese inside the country can purchase original software online. Regular citizens, as well as universities, rely heavily on pirated software that cannot be updated online automatically and is often ridden with malware.

Computer science students have reported that they are unable to obtain their certificates after taking and passing online courses affiliated with US institutions such, MITx. The reason given is that certificates are not issued for countries under comprehensive US sanctions, such as Sudan, Iran, Syria, and Cuba. Additionally, online educational websites, such as Khan Academy, Google Scholar and Audacity remain blocked to users in Sudan.

Conversations with American civil society working on net freedom, about the impact of the US sanctions has yielded positive reactions but no changes in US policy yet. In early December 2013 The New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute issued a research paper on the topic, and recommended that the US “updates” its sanctions policy to, ”reflect the need for access to personal communications technology”.

The paper concluded that, “U.S. sanctions remain outdated” in acknowledging the role of ICTs in “enabling access to information, free expression, and political dialogue”. They also added the such sanctions “in some cases effectively aid repressive regimes that seek to control access to information within their borders with negative consequences on the civilian population.”

The Open Technology Institute’s research described the sanctions on Sudan to be “the least mature” as compared to other countries, especially Iran, which bares a lot of resemblance to Sudan in terms of political context. After Iran’s “ Green Revolution” in 2009, the US government revised its sanctions on Iran twice, once in 2010 and again in 2013, dropping restrictions on ICTs and issuing detailed instructions to US technology companies clarifying what is permitted for export to Iran and what isn’t.

There’s no reason why Sudan’s technology sanctions should be lagging behind countries like Iran and Syria. It’s time the US revisits its sanctions regime on Sudan, and shows more consideration for the importance of free access to ICTs, information and knowledge on the internet.

This article was posted on 22 January 2014 at