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.

Bahrain bars human rights groups as unrest escalates

When Index on Censorship visited Bahrain on a fact finding mission late last year, officials repeatedly pledged to maintain a transparent relationship with the international community. Now that undertaking seems just another broken promise. Three international rights organisations have been denied entry this year.

The fact-finding mission investigated the state of free expression in Bahrain. We detailed our findings in a  report released this week. In meetings with officials from the Ministry of Human Rights, the mission was  promised that as long as the correct procedures were followed, we (and other organisations) would be allowed to enter Bahrain.

Earlier this month Bahrain refused to grant the visas to staff from Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights First, asking that they delay until March. Despite having visas and a scheduled meeting with the US Embassy, a delegation from Freedom House was barred from entering the country on 19 January, only days before they planned to travel. Authorities asked that the organisation delay their trip until the end of February.

“I was very disappointed that I was unable to go”, Freedom House’s Courtney Radsch told Index. According to Freedom House, the mission’s was not related to political unrest in the county but part of a programme monitoring the empowerment of rural women started in 2010. Radsch said that the decision showed the “complete hypocrisy” of officials. In a blog post, Radsch quoted King Hamad assuring the international community that they would have any open door, saying  “any government which has a sincere desire for reform and progress understands the benefit of objective and constructive criticism.”

A violent crackdown on daily protests continues, and despite the BICI committee’s recommendation that prisoners be released or employees be reinstated, many Bahrainis have been unable to resume their daily lives. Even the chair of the BICI commission, Cherif Bassiouni, who previously commended the King for commissioning the report, said that critics would be justified in calling Bahrain’s sluggish implementation of their recommendations a “whitewash“.

Meanwhile, members of the opposition are growing restless, and this week things took a bloody turn. Violence escalated between protesters and security forces Wednesday, as some younger opposition members attacked police officers. Wednesday’s violence reportedly resulted in four deaths, including that of Mohamed Yacqoub, 18. While human rights activists Index spoke to were insistent on peaceful protest methods, they warned of things taking a more violent turn if brutality against peaceful protesters were to continue after the release of the BICI report.

Letter from America: Circumvention tools under the spotlight

Freedom House released a report last week offering a kind of product review of internet circumvention tools available to web users living in countries where their access to online content is regularly blocked and filtered.

Circumvention tools — or at least the idea of them — have become a popular cause for politicians and some net freedom activists in the West who see the technology as the best antidote to internet firewalls.

But as Freedom House points out, the array of tools available come with tradeoffs many users may not be considering. Freedom House’s survey of users in Azerbaijan, Burma, China and Iran, reveals that many are prioritising quick access over personal safety and security — something they may be doing, the authors speculate, “out of ignorance of the risks taken.”

And in a further sign of the fractured debate around such tools — and the high stakes for anyone in, say, Iran trying to use them — a prominent US developer behind one of the tools examined by Freedom House has heavily criticised the report.

Jacob Appelbaum, one of the developers behind the Tor Project (perhaps even better known as a player in the US government’s Twitter confrontation over access to the personal information of users connected to WikiLeaks), has written that the report “in its current form could be dangerous to the users it aims to help.”

He critiques Freedom House’s methodology for examining the tools, including Tor’s, and suggests in particular that the report may mislead users on the security level of various circumvention options available to them.

For all their seeming popularity in concept — a theme discussed in the current Index magazine in Danny O’Brien’s profile of the imploded project Haystack — circumvention tools may not even be reaching many of their intended users.

Last year, a Berkman Center circumvention usage report estimated that no more than 3 per cent of internet users in countries with substantial internet censorship use circumvention tools at all. After surveying savvy net users most likely to know about such tools, Berkman concluded that the true usage rate is likely even lower.

These debates about the quality of existing tools and the extent of their actual impact matter for US internet policy for one significant reason: The State Department must decide how to deploy about $25 m in funding to support international Internet freedom, and some — including powerful Republican Senator Richard Lugar — would like to see that money go entirely to develop circumvention tools.

Rebecca MacKinnon, in an interview with the New Yorker magazine, describes what’s become a political fight in Washington over how to spend this money. It pits, on one side, circumvention tool developers like the Global Internet Freedom Consortium that have actively lobbied media and politicians, and on the other Internet advocates (MacKinnon included) who warn that circumvention tools only address a small piece of the problem of free speech censorship online.

Hillary Clinton seemed to place herself in the latter category during her February speech on internet freedom when she said the government would invest in a “portfolio of technologies, tools and training.”

The bigger question, though, may not be which technologies and which tools, but can the US best help the global cause of internet freedom by investing in technology tools, or human infrastructure?

As Ethan Zuckerman has argued: “We can’t circumvent our way around internet censorship.”