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The two most influential independent newspapers in Sudan, Al-Sahafa and Al-Kartoum, have recently been bought by the National Intelligence
Security Service (NISS).
The NISS now owns 90% of all the independent newspapers in the country, according to Alnoor Ahmed Alnoor, the ex-editor in chief of Al-Sahafa.
The NISS purchased 65% of Al-Sahafa’s stock from a company called Bayader and a further 25% from Sideeq Wadaa, a businessman and member of the ruling NCP Party (with the remainder retained by the paper’s founder, Taha Ali Albashir). This follows the purchase of 80% of the stock of Al-Khartoum from its owner, Albagir Abdellah, five months ago.
Ownership represents the final stage in the Sudanese government’s campaign to silence independent voices in the media. Newspapers that refused to tow the NCP line or implement its agendas faced harassment, and fifteen newspapers were forcibly closed following the independence of South Sudan in 2011. Punitive taxes were also imposed, as was the case with the Al-Sudani between 2006 to 2011, which eventually forced the paper’s owner to sell it to a member of the NCP.
Khalid Abdelaziz, a one-time editorial manager of Al-Sudani says: “They used to demand about US$400,000 a year in their campaign against us while leaving their own newspapers paying little tax. They also used regulations to prevent us from the advertising. They gave us a choice, to implement their agendas or to sell our newspaper. We took the second choice”.
The new ownership has been followed by the resignation of key journalist. Interference led to Mozdalfa Osman to step down as editorial manager at Al-Khartoum: “I resigned because of the negative influence on my job and the implementing of NISS’s agenda, which contradicted my professionalism”.
Those that remain face increasing harassment, such as Al-Khartoum’s Mohamed Salih, winner of this year’s Peter Mackler prize, who faces pressure from his new editor-in-chief: “He calls me four times weekly asking to change some of the ideas in my column. I have never worked under such conditions before”.
Independent reporting in Sudanese has had a checkered history. The free press thrived for 57 years from 1903 to 1960 when first dictatorship came to the power. After the revolution of October 1964 independent newspapers once more operated until the second dictatorship in 1969, which nationalized all newspapers considered to have had a socialist orientation. With the second period of democracy, following the revolution of March 1985, another tranche of independent newspapers came into existence. However this once more came to an end when the current regime came to power in a military coup in June 1989.
Before the peace agreement with Sudan people liberation movement (SPLM) in 2005, NCP created shell companies to buy stakes in the newspapers, such as Alrai Alaam one of the oldest newspapers in Sudan. It has been published since 1948. The shell companies began buying stakes in 2002. The same process has been used with Alsahafa and Alkhartoum.
Hayder Almukashfi, who is responsible for the opinion pages on Al-Sahafa, said the newspaper has been greatly influenced by the new owners: “All the pages have been affected by the new polices and the opinion pages have been affected the most. The new owners sacked the previous editor in chief, who had been in the job for years, and have brought another one is a member of ruling NCP. This is an awful situation for freedom of speech in Sudan. The government can now claim there’s no censorship of the press because now the government is the press”.
There’s no trying to hide what’s happening within the urban centres of Sudan today. On Wednesday, September 25 at about 1pm, the Sudanese authorities completely shut down the country’s global internet for 24 hours. This happened against the backdrop of spreading peaceful protests following the regime’s decision to lift state subsidies from basic food items and fuel.
In the last few weeks, Sudan’s citizens have been feeling the burden of increasing prices as the Sudanese pound depreciated sharply, and purchasing power declined in a country where 46 percent of the population live in poverty. The lifting of subsidies was met with a popular outburst, especially after a public TV speech by President Omer Al Bashir made it clear that his government has no concrete solutions. He went on to mock the population saying they did not know what hot dogs were before he came to power.
The protests, which started in Wad Madani in Gaziera state, have so far spread to Sudan’s major towns including Nyala in war-struck Darfur. They have been met with unprecedented government violence in the Northern cities of Sudan which have traditionally been peaceful. Live ammunition has been used against protesters, many of whom are school students and youth in their early to mid twenties. By the third day of protests the death toll in Khartoum alone exceeded 100, and 12 in Wad Madani. There have been arrests amongst political leaders, activists and protesters, with more than 80 detainees from Madani alone.
Protesters are mainly calling for the regime to step down, with chants of, “liberty, justice, freedom”, “the people want the downfall of the regime”, and “we have come out for the people who stole our sweat”. These protests lack any political or civil society leadership, and so far not a single statement has come from the umbrella of opposition parties, the National Coalition Forces.
Crackdown on the internet and print media
The internet blackout imposed by Sudan’s National Congress Party (NCP) was an intentional ploy aimed at limiting the outflow of information, especially the very graphic images of protesters lying dead in the streets, as well as the images from hospital morgues showing protesters with fatal injuries to the head and upper torso areas. It is clear that this show of force is meant to frighten Sudanese citizens and deter additional protests. (Graphic Images: Street | Street)
This is not the first time the regime in Khartoum has shut down the internet. In June 2013 there was an 8-hour internet blackout during a gathering organized by the Ansar (an off-shoot of the Umma Party) that attracted thousands of people. During the protests last year, dubbed Sudan Revolts, the internet slowed down drastically on the night of June 29, before a large protest was announced.
Since the independence of South Sudan in July 2011, Sudan has also experienced a general clampdown on the media. On September 19, before the start of the protests on Monday, newspapers writing about the economic situation including Alayaam, Al Jareeda and the pro-government Al Intibaha, were confiscated. On Thursday, newspapers including included Al Ayaam and Al Jareeda, refused to print because of the government imposed censorship that prohibits any mention of the ongoing protests. Today Al Sudani and Al Mahjar newspapers (both pro-government) were confiscated, and Al Watan was not allowed to go to press.
With most citizens and activists relying completely on social media outlets and internet access through mobile phones to share information, footage and photos, the internet remains the only affordable means to communicate with the outside world. Other options, such as dial-up using modems are not viable for Sudan, as most people have no landlines to connect via modems and depend on mobile devices to access the internet.
During the internet blackout many reported that even SMS messages were blocked. And services such as tweeting via SMS were interrupted by the sole telecommunications provider that carries this service-Zain.
Popular anger and continuing protests
Contrary to the government’s intention the excessive use of force against protesters, the rising death toll and continuing rumours that the internet may be shut down again have not dissuaded citizens, but rather made them more angry and determined, with protests lasting long after midnight in Khartoum. As the streets of the capital and other towns filled up with security agents, riot police and armed government militias, citizens have nonetheless buried their dead in large and angry processions.
Today has been called Martyr’s Friday, in remembrance of all those who have fallen. Protests have been announced in all of Sudan’s towns. In some areas of Khartoum, citizens reported that they were not allowed into mosques for Friday prayers, and that the mosques had a heavy presence of security agents in civilian clothes. This move shows that the regime is anxious protests may follow after the prayers, as well as fearing the possible politicisation of the Friday sermons which may incite more anger.
Nonetheless, this has not deterred more than 2,000 protesters to congregate in Rabta Square, Shambat Barhry (in Khartoum). While writing this, a protester called me to say his internet was not working, and described that even leaders from the communist party, Popular Congress Party and others were starting to arrive. I could hear him with difficulty, but chants in the background were clear, “ya Khartoum, thouri, thouri”—Khartoum, revolt, revolt.
So far one thing is clear: these protests are not a replay of last year’s summer protests that were mainly triggered by university students and youth movements. These are street-supported protests–something that previous protests lacked and a game changer for the NCP who is gradually losing its grip on power.
This article was edited on 5 November 2013 at 13:50. The article originally stated that the internet blackout took place on Wednesday 26 September. It took place on 25 September.
Sudan’s Public Order Law (POL) is making headlines after female activist and engineer Amira Osman was arrested on August 27 in Jebel Awliya, a suburb of Khartoum, for refusing to pull up her head-scarf. Amira is now facing trial for “indecent conduct” under Article 152 of the Sudanese penal code, and risks being punished with flogging and/or bail. Her next trial is scheduled for September 19.
In a calculated act of defiance against one of Africa’s most oppressive regimes, Ms. Osman recorded a video where she described the demeaning manner in which she was treated by Public Order Police (POP) and invited Sudanese citizens (men and women) to attend her trial, saying: “if you think that the Public Order Law is against you, come to Jabel Awliya’s Court…and let’s put the Public Order Law on trial”.
The first session of her trial was on September 1. It was attended by almost 100 regular citizens, civil society members and women’s rights activists. The trial was postponed when the judge did not show up due to sickness.
Osman’s trial is reminiscent of the POL case of Sudanese journalist Lubna Hussien, who captivated national and international attention in July 2009 when she and 12 other women were arrested in a restaurant in Khartoum for wearing trousers.
Public order laws or social control laws?
Sudan’s POLs date back to 1983. They were referred to back then as the September Laws, imposed by the authoritarian regime of President Jafaar Numeiri. He introduced Sharia corporal punishments (hudood) for acts such as consuming alcohol, stealing, gambling or mixing between the sexes. These laws fueled the national discontent that led to the uprising that toppled Numeiri in April 1985.
When the current regime took power in 1989 following a military coup, it introduced an extensive array of Public Order Laws. With the intention of creating an Islamic State, the National Islamic Front (as it was called back then) initiated a detailed “Civilization Project” that reached into every aspect of Sudanese social life, and placed restrictions on long entrenched traditional norms such as private parties with music, mixing between the sexes and the making and consumption of alcohol.
However, no other aspect of the Public Order Regime has altered the daily lives of Sudanese women like Article 152 of the Criminal Act of 1991 that says: “(1) Whoever commits, in a public place, an act, or conducts himself in an indecent manner, or a manner contrary to public morality, or wears an indecent, or immoral dress, which causes annoyance to public feelings, shall be punished, with whipping, not exceeding forty lashes, or with fine, or with both; (2) The act shall be deemed contrary to public morality, if it is so considered in the religion of the doer, or the custom of the country where the act occurs.”
Human rights lawyers have consistently pointed out that Article 152 is vague and does not define what is meant precisely by indecent clothing or indecent behaviour. It thus leaves a lot to be interpreted by POP and the judges in the Public Order Courts.
Prominent human rights lawyer Nabeel Adeeb recently commented in an op-ed that,”what is seen by me as indecent attire may be seen by someone else as decent”. He adds that from a religious perspective it’s hard to impose one uniform on women because it depends on their personal understanding of their faith. “Judges should not be god’s representatives on earth.” he says. Society’s understanding of “decent” attire is a constantly shifting concept, and Sudan’s diversity makes this even more complex and a matter that should not be decided in the courts. “It is an issue left to families and religious leaders, because it is linked to education and upbringing and not the law,” he concludes.
Poor and fleeing women targeted
No national statistics are available to shed light on how many women or men around Sudan are impacted by the Public Order Regime, however in 2008 the head of the Public Order Police in Khartoum said that in that year 41,000 persons were stopped under Article 152 and signed promissory documents “not to wear indecent clothing”.
Most POL cases are processed quickly in Public Order Courts without the presence of lawyers, with no due process and with judges who lack proper legal training.
Women’s rights activists who have been fighting this law for years point out that the stigma associated with being arrested by POP drive many women, who are less knowledgeable about their rights and more concerned about their reputation, into accepting summary trials in Public Order Courts where they are often flogged and/or have to pay a bail .
The women most impacted by the POL are not the urban educated women like Amira and Lubna, but rather the thousands of women fleeing conflicts and hard conditions in other regions such as the Nuba Mountains and Darfur, and who have to support their families by working in Khartoum’s informal sector selling tea, food or making a local millet-based beer called marisa.
Monim Adam, a human rights lawyer, says: “in most cases these women cannot afford the bail that can go up to $200, and they end up serving prison terms of up to one month. Many of them also endure sexual harassment that goes as far as rape, from the Public Order Police officers who have limited oversight”.
A prominent case that’s also running in the courts right now is that of Nuba Mountains woman Awadiya Ajabna. She was shot dead in March 2012 when she interfered as the POP were harassing her brother outside their family home, accusing him of being drunk. Ajabna died hours after POP fired shots that also injured her mother and sister.
This is not the first documented case of death at the hands of POP, as in 2010 a tea lady, Nadia Saboon was fleeing what is referred to as a Kashaa (a raid or sweep) by the POP. Saboon fell on a piece of metal and died due to the injury sustained. Raids and confiscations of the equipment of tea ladies by POP are a common practice in Khartoum, and it is done under the premise of “preserving the appearance of the public domain”.
Sudan has undergone severe limitations on fundamental rights after the separation of South Sudan in July 2011. In the last two years the Islamist regime of Omer Al Bashir has clamped down on freedom of the press, freedom of association and assembly, by closing newspapers and pro-democracy civil society organizations, and violently clamping down on peaceful protest.
Three Sudanese columnists were prevented from writing by the National intelligence Security Services (NISS) after they condemned the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Journalists Salah Awooda, Zuhair Elsrag and Rishan Oshi were banned from writing for between five to fifteen days during August after criticizing the Islamist group. This is part of a growing trend in Sudan for opinion columnists to be targeted by Government censorship, rather than newspapers.
Awooda, who works for the pro-government newspaper Alkir Lahza, was removed from his desk after he suggested that the Sudanese government’s criticism of the Egyptian military was hypocritical, as they also came to power via a military coup.
“They have suspended me because I condemned their contradictions about Egyptian events and claimed that they have acted as if they are democratic people,” Awooda says.
He also pointed out that the Sudanese government and its allied Islamists groups have organised demonstrations in front of the Egyptian embassy in Khartoum protesting against military action against the Brotherhood. Moreover, the official Sudanese media and others aligned with the Government have waged a campaign against the military intervening in politics in Egypt.
“I’m just surprised how they talk about legitimacy and democracy in Egypt,” he added, “while they undertook a military coup against the democratically elected government in Sudan in 1989 and they didn’t apologise to the Sudanese people for what they did. This is double standards”.
Awooda has been suspended on three occasions over the last two months, without any legal basis, following telephone calls by NISS agents to his editor-in-chief. The columnist was barred from writing for a month, and then for a further two days, after he criticized Government censorship. He was then detained for 15 more days without any apparent cause. In 2010, Awooda’s appointment as editor-in-chief of independent daily newspaper Aljareeda was blocked despite his considerable experience as editor-in-chief of three newspapers.
“They have stopped me three times since last July without giving any official reasons” he says. “They just suspend writers according to their mood without any legal basis in NISS regulations or the current constitution.”
Sudanese journalists have been engaged in a long running battle with the government over press freedom. 15 independent and anti-government newspapers have been closed in recent years. Since 2011, about 15 columnists have been prevented from working by NISS, though some have been allowed to return to their jobs after being suspended. Five have gone on to write for web publications but now the government is preparing a new law on electronic media which may lead to further harassment. In September 2009 the Sudanese Constitutional Court in Sudan rejected an appeal brought by a group of journalists, writers and columnists against newspaper censorship by NISS.
In a report on freedom of speech published in May by the organisation Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), the Sudanese government is accused of continuing to restrain press freedoms. It noted that the Sudanese government, via the NISS, has started to put pressure on individual columnists leading to their suspension, rather than targeting newspapers as they used to.
“There are many reasons for this,” says Faisal Mohamed Salih, a Khartoum columnist and winner of the Peter Mackler Award for ethical journalism. “For a long time the NISS restrained the news and other types of journalism as they controlled the newspapers but they moved their attention to the columnists because they have become stars. Readers prefer to get their information in opinion columns instead of the news stories.
“The NISS has succeeded in controlling newspapers but they couldn’t do it with the columnists because they are not employees of the newspapers, unlike the journalists, and can publish information that journalists couldn’t do” Faisal adds.
Yassin Hassan Bashir, another columnist who has been stopped from writing, thinks that the columns are an easier target for NISS censors compared to essays and investigative stories, simply as they are quicker to read.
“Because they are shorter than other type of journalism,” Bashir says, “they can read them more easily. You sometimes find the same opinions in longer, more difficult investigative stories, but they ignore it. They are not aware enough to evaluate the longer or more complex articles or they are too lazy to read them all”.
Aldooma argues that while government censors still target newspapers, they do so less than in the past. As the nature of journalism in Sudan changes to more opinion journalism than news and investigative journalism columnists will be increasingly targeted.