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

Sudan: Sound and fury

Dozens of protesters in front of the Sudanese Embassy in Rome October 2013 to protest of the alleged human rights abuses in Sudan (Image Marco Zeppetella/Demotix)

Dozens of protesters in front of the Sudanese Embassy in Rome October 2013 to protest of the alleged human rights abuses in Sudan (Image Marco Zeppetella/Demotix)

In the latest magazine issue of  Index on Censorship the Bishop of Bradford Nick Baines reflects on his first visit to Sudan, a country whose leader strongly believes in one religion and one language for all.

Freedom of expression is of universal importance, but its absence is sometimes more easily seen through the lens of a different culture. The familiar landscape of “home” can sometimes hinder a proper appreciation of the absence of freedoms, being outside of one’s comfort zone can heighten awareness of reality. In this article I want to approach the matter from the outside in.

Early in 2013 I visited Sudan for the first time. The diocese of Bradford has had a partnership with Sudan for 30 years, and I was linked for a decade with Anglican dioceses in Zimbabwe (in my previous post as Bishop of Croydon). I thought I could easily switch attention from one African country to another. The reality was different.

Zimbabwe is ruled by Robert Mugabe, a man so corrupt that even his own demise will not clear the path to a golden new age – there are too many people who need to be protected by power well into the future. Sudan is governed by Omar al Bashir, a man committed to the project of creating a single nation (Sudan) with a single ethnicity (Arab), a single language (Arabic) and a single religion (Islam). There is a degree of shameful incompetence about Mugabe’s manipulation of power and the consequent destruction of the Zimbabwean economy and the country’s political culture. But al Bashir knows exactly what he is doing. And he does it in the face of a serious indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for genocide in Darfur: he feels untouchable

Since 99 per cent of southerners voted in 2011 for the division of Sudan into two independent states, Sudan and South Sudan, al Bashir has chosen to make the secessionists take responsibility for their choice – to some extent understandably. If they are so keen on having their own country, then they can go there… and then apply for visas to come to Sudan as foreigners. Harsh? Yes, but he could be seen to be compelling the South Sudanese to live with the consequences of their actions. Democratic choices bring consequences.

However, the real experience of this is the expulsion from Sudan of anyone deemed to originate in the south – even several generations ago. Those who remain – often because they are married to Sudanese – are prohibited from working. Apart from the human cost of this policy, the effect on the Anglican church (the Episcopal Church of Sudan, which has not divided along with the states) is an exodus of leaders, an increased dependency of those who remain on the goodwill and generosity of other Sudanese Christians. And this is happening alongside the ongoing genocide in Darfur, government violence in South Kordofan and Blue Nile state. Khartoum has had to absorb destitute migrants on an unimaginable scale.

Those displaced are almost exclusively African. They speak African languages (derogatorily referred to as “twittering” by the Arabs). They are mostly (but not exclusively) Christian.

My visit to Khartoum earlier this year ended when my wife and I left a Christian-owned guesthouse at 1am in order to get to the airport for the flight back to Manchester. Within an hour the guesthouse had been raided by the security services, all property confiscated, and all residents and guests taken in for questioning. Foreign guests were deported and the family that ran the guesthouse was removed; the father of the family is now prohibited from working. This might not sound too dramatic – especially in the light of reports from parts of the Middle East and South Asia where Christians are being targeted for violence or forced to convert to Islam – but it comes as part of a deliberate policy on the part of government to exclude Christians and force them to leave for the South. This necessarily puts pressure on Christians to keep quiet, but the bishops (in particular) continue to be unafraid to engage courageously with “the powers”.

It seems that al Bashir blames the international community for refusing to welcome him back into the fold by removing the ICC indictment after the peaceful transition to two states. Foreigners are to be removed, even when they provide essential services that cannot be provided locally. We met European medical personnel who had spent their working lives developing medical facilities in local communities, and who now found themselves thrown out, leaving medical provision severely weakened.

Why destroy social, educational and medical infrastructure simply in order to save face? Riots in September 2013 in Khartoum (initially about the removal of fuel subsidies) demonstrated that economic matters do not always serve the interests of the government of the day.

But there is a bigger question relevant beyond Sudan. How do we understand and clearly define the categories in which and through which we see political, religious and cultural phenomena? Getting the category wrong leads inevitably to miscomprehension, to a potentially dangerous misapplication of rhetoric/language… and this has political consequences.

My own diocese of Bradford has a high percentage of Muslims from south Asia. Immigration began in the mid-20th century in order to staff the textile mills of West Yorkshire. Many of Bradford’s Muslims originate from the region of Kashmiri Mirpur in Pakistan. This concentration necessarily affects how the community lives and organises in Bradford, how it is influenced by (and, in turn, influences) events back in Pakistan, and how it is understood by the non-Pakistani population in the city.

One of the first lessons I had to learn when I came to Bradford nearly three years ago was not to confuse ethnicity with religion. What might appear to be a phenomenon rooted in religious identity (certain modes of dress, for example) might actually be more appropriately understood as a cultural phenomenon that coincidentally becomes associated with religious identity. To confuse the two can be dangerous. What I have in mind here is where violence (in particular) is attributed to religion, when religious tagging is clearly a tribal badging designed to hide more cultural (or other) identity.

Examples of this can be seen in the Northern Ireland of the Troubles or the sectarian destructiveness of Lebanon. Although the categories cannot easily be extricated from one another, at least those who observe or comment on such events should have the intelligence to dig a little deeper into the categorisation of such phenomena before simplistically eliding culture and religion as if they were synonymous.

The point is that there are two dangers here: (a)that category errors lead to poor communication and confusion, and (b)that people might be reluctant to speak out on serious matters simply because they fear being accused of racism or simply getting it wrong. This doesn’t help anyone where honest and frank conversation is needed and mutual critique is essential to good relationships.

This takes us back to Sudan. It is not a simple matter – capable of easy explication or distinction – to work out what can be attributed to which category. Al Bashir’s policy seems clearly to create a political, ethnic, religious and cultural identity in which there is no place for diversity. One can assume that he is aiming at a myth of solidarity – that if everyone claims the same identity, they will buy into the same projects, have the same friends and enemies, defend the same categories and communicate in the same way. Of course, this fails to take into account the complex reality of human identity construction and how complex and diverse people interrelate and self-identify.

In one sense all this should not need to be articulated. If Muslim is blowing up Muslim in Pakistan or Afghanistan, then there is clearly more going on than mere “religion” or religious identity. Simply reporting atrocities as if they were political or cultural events (without reference to religious allegiance) is as naïve as to report on religion without reference to the ethnic, political, economic, social or cultural identities that shape religious expression.

This is not a plea for obfuscation or mitigation of religiously motivated violence. On the contrary, it is a plea for the sort of literacy that seeks to comprehend in order to know how to think about and respond to phenomena that might all-too-easily be capable of simplistic categorisation.

Language goes to the heart of this. Not only the language of explanation or reportage, but the ways in which language is (or particular languages are) seen to be totems of identities that are deemed to be inconvenient. In Zimbabwe identity is tied up inextricably with language: the Shonaspeaking government has demonstrated in past violence what it thinks of the Ndebelespeaking Matabele. In Sudan African languages – mostly spoken by Christians of African (rather than Arabic) origin – are being derided and squeezed out. This is one reason why some churches in Sudan put such high value on keeping their own languages alive, teaching them to both children and adults, working hard (with pitiful resources) to reserve their means of communication as an integral element of cultural and religious identity. Language is as much part of individual and common identity as is skin colour, and nobody should be compelled to lose their native tongue.

One of the most penetrating verses of the Old Testament is found in the book of Proverbs. Seized upon by opponents of Hitler during the 1930s and 1940s in Germany, it demands that we “open our mouths for the dumb” – that is, that those who have a voice must keep alive the songs and language of people whose voice is silenced by the exercise of corrupt power. The moral demands of this are clear here also. But, for that voice to be heard and understood, it is essential that intelligent consideration is given to ensuring that the categories of speech and identification are kept as accurate as possible.

Responding to religious phenomena as if they were merely “cultural” is as dangerous and misplaced as eliding all cultural phenomena as merely “religious” – and runs the risk of stopping people speaking truthfully and accurately when religion is the root of violence or cultural violence seeks to hide behind a religious facade. The world is more complex than that. We can and must do better.

Regime repression stifles Sudan’s net freedom

The government of Sudan cut the country off from the internet as protests against the end of fuel subsidies spread.

The government of Sudan cut the country off from the internet as protests against the end of fuel subsidies spread.

The release of the annual Freedom on the Net report for the first time includes a chapter on Sudan, authored by Index Award nominees GIRIFNA. This is more than timely, as the country is witnessing a new wave of widespread protests triggered by the Sudanese government’s announcement in late September 2013 that it will lift economic subsidies from fuel and other essential food items.

Based on a survey of 60 countries in Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2013, Sudan is categorised as “Not Free” with a score of 63, placing it among the bottom 14 countries in the category. As one of ten sub-Saharan African countries surveyed, Sudan joined Ethiopia as the two “Not Free” countries in the region. Kenya and South Africa were categorised as “Free” and the remaining six – Angola, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe – as “Partly Free”.

Sudan has invested heavily in its telecommunications infrastructure in the last decade, resulting in a steadily increasing internet penetration rate of 21 percent and a mobile penetration rate of 60 percent by the end of 2012, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). It also boasts the cheapest post-paid costs in the Middle East and North Africa in 2012, and healthy market competition amongst four telecommunications providers.

However, these infrastructural and economical advantages are highly reduced against the backdrop of a State that has little respect for freedom of expression, freedom of association, participation and peaceful assembly. The Sudanese regime is amongst the worst globally in terms its obstruction of the access to independent and diverse information both offline and online. A global study on press freedom conducted by Reporters without Borders earlier this year ranks Sudan at 170 out of 179 countries surveyed. This clearly reflects that the violations of freedom of expression impacting the traditional print media are also starting to reflect online.

The Sudan Revolts, the wave of protests triggered by economic austerity plans that hit the country between June and July 2012, was the first time the authorities implemented a large-scale crackdown and detentions of citizens using digital platforms to communicate, connect, coordinate and mobilise. Additionally, the government increased its deployment of a Cyber Jihadist Unit to monitor and hack into Facebook and email accounts of activists. The National Telecommunications Corporation (a government agency) also engages in the censoring and blocking of opposition online news forums and outlets. YouTube, for example, was blocked for two months in late 2012 in response to the “Innocence of Muslims” video.

The attacks on cyber dissidents during Sudan Revolts included the detention of digital activists, such as Usamah Mohammed, for up to two months, the forced exile of Sudan’s most prominent video blogger Nagla’a Sid Ahmad, and the kidnapping and torture of the Darfurian online journalist Somia Hundosa. Moreover, one of the most high profile political detainees from the Nuba Mountains, Jalila Khamis, spent nine months in detention without charges. When she was finally brought to trial in December 2012, the main evidence against her was a YouTube video taken by Sid Ahmad, in which Khamis testified about the shelling of civilians in the Nuba Mountains by the government.

Since September 23 this year, authorities have responded to the new wave of protests with unprecedented violence toward peacefully protesting urban dwellers. More than 200 have been killed in Khartoum and Wad Madani by live bullets fired by riot police, national security agents, and/or state sponsored militias. According to a government statement, 600 citizens have been detained, though activists say that number is much higher. On Wednesday, September 25, the government shut down internet access for 24 hours. When the internet returned, it was much slower, with Facebook inaccessible on mobile phones and YouTube blocked or non-functional due to a very slow broadband connection.

The US sanctions imposed on Omer El Bashir’s regime since 1997 also continue to hinder the free access to the internet and the free flow of information as it limits access to a number of new media tools. This includes limited access to anti virus suites, e-document readers, and rich content multimedia applications that most Sudanese citizens cannot download. The inability to download software security updates makes many users in Sudan vulnerable to malware. Smart phone applications cannot be downloaded or purchased from the iTunes and/or Android stores.

Additionally, Sudan has a combination of restrictive laws that work together to impede freedom of expression both off and online, including the 2009 Printed Press Materials Law, and a new Media law that has recently appeared in Parliament, which officials have hinted would for the first include language restricting online content. Additionally, the National Security Act (2010) gives National Intelligence and Security Services the permission to arrest journalists and censor newspapers under the pretext of “national security,”. An IT Crime Law, in effect since 2007 criminalises websites that criticise the government or publishes defamatory materials. All these laws contradict Sudan’s National Interim Constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

A version of this article has been published on GIRIFNA’s website. The arabic version of the Freedom on the Net report can be accessed here.