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.

Open data activist Aaron Swartz dies at 26

Open data activist and developer Aaron Swartz was found dead Friday in his New York home. The 26-year-old activist, who tirelessly campaigned for net freedom, was facing federal charges for allegedly downloading 4.8 million academic articles from JSTOR on the MIT campus in 2011. Even though JSTOR decided not to bring charges against Swartz, federal prosecutors decided to pursue charges anyways. If found guilty, Swartz faced $1 million in fines and 35 years in prison.

Swartz, who suffered from depression, committed suicide and his loved ones alleged in a statement that his death was tied to stress caused by his legal woes:

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

The aggressive pursuit of Swartz by federal officials has drawn criticism over the severity of the charges, and questions over the types of laws used to pursue crimes committed online. Charges were brought against Swartz under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act — the same law used to bring charges against Bradley Manning.

US-based privacy expert Chris Soghoian told the Associated Press that the laws, as they are, don’t differentiate between “malicious crimes committed for profit” and “cases where hackers break into systems to prove their skillfulness or spread information that they think should be available to the public”.

Swartz was at the forefront of a fight for keeping the online world open, condemning the sticky tape of copyright and restrictions on information online. While at Mozilla Fest, I feel like I caught a glimpse of the kind of world that Swartz was working for — one that places the most value on sharing information, ideas, and knowledge freely. The director of MIT’s Media Lab, Joi Ito said the following during his speech at the conference:

You’re all political. Everything we’re doing today is gonna destroy businesses it’s going to take power away from those in power. You have to understand that what we’re doing we’re being very disruptive. It’s very scary for people. The problem is that those people who are afraid of us are trying to shut us down.


Sara Yasin is an Editorial Assistant at Index. She tweets from @missyasin 

WCIT12 — The UK stood up for internet freedom

I’ve just returned home after two weeks at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). I will be writing a longer piece in Index on Censorship magazine in the New Year, but my initial thoughts are as follows.

First, we worked hard and compromised. This is important to take note of because I expect there to be claims that the UK and US never intended to sign the treaty. In my experience, this was not the case at all: Every single delegation both large and small worked hard to discuss, compromise, put forward ideas, and discuss further the treaty. I spent very long days covering my remit of the treaty and so did others. The Chairs of the working groups worked hard despite facing complete disagreement on texts. Delegates did try to find accord.

Second, we all understand what other countries need and want. If there was one thing to take away from this conference, it was that myself and others now have a greater of understanding of what other countries were trying to achieve through this treaty. Developing countries need skills and capacity building. Some want to see direct income from internet infrastructure while others seek only to suppress the communication and freedom of their citizens. It is clear to me now how this is playing out on an international stage and I will touch upon this more in my longer article for Index

Third, and most importantly, the UK stood up for freedom online. Going into this treaty the UK and allies said that they could not accept a treaty in which the internet was regulated. The Chair of the conference, by forcing through a “non-vote” on an internet resolution, made it all about the internet. The resolution passed and suddenly the treaty negotiations changed by the middle of last week. The final treaty was, after this and many days of negotiation, a bad deal for the UK and so the UK decided not to sign. It needs to be said that the UK stood up for freedom in spite of everything happening at home including the Comms Data Bill and press regulation issues.

What I take away from this conference is that the fundamental divide is not the internet itself but those that believe that humans achieve their best when they are free and those that do not. We have a lot of work to do  spreading this idea and demonstrating that freedom online means prosperity and stability to all citizens. But we should not see this as a negative outcome out of the WCIT, but as an opportunity to spread what we believe in thanks, in a very small part, to the fact that the UK stood up for its fundamental ideals.

Dominique Lazanski is the head of digital policy at the TaxPayers’ Alliance and a member of the UK delegation to WCIT-12