Sudanese journalist targeted for allegedly insulting the military

When three journalists were invited to accompany a military official to a town supposedly recaptured from rebels, they did not expect to end up caught in crossfire. One journalist is being targeted after an anonymous and more honest account of the incident appeared online. Reem Abbas reports


Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) chief of staff Esmat Abdelrahman

Charges have been brought against journalist Khaled Ahmed for allegedly writing a report critical of the Sudanese military.

Ahmed was one of three journalists that accompanied Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) chief of staff Esmat Abdelrahman on a visit to Abu Karshola, a neglected town in the embattled state of South Kordofan — where there has been a war between the government and rebels from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North Sudan Faction (SPLM-N) since June 2011. The visit was organised to celebrate the town’s “liberation” from rebels.

Both SAF and the media were blocked from Abu Karshola between late April and late May. The town was occupied by the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), a coalition of rebel groups (including SPLM-N), which has fought the Sudanese government in different parts of the country since 2011. While the group contends that its departure in May was a “tactical” move, the government has asserted that it regained control of the town.

On 31 May three journalists flew over Abu Karshola in a military plane. Rather than finding a “liberated” town, Ahmed told Index that what he actually saw was a war-zone. During their visit, they were caught in crossfire as they toured the army force’s front lines. A few bullets came too close to Ahmed, and soon after he and the other journalists were taken back to the army base for safety.

“A military plane was called on for our aid, it was shot down by the SRF, we were three journalists stuck in a battlefield,” said Ahmed.

While rebels claimed to have downed the plane, official reports said that the plane crashed due to mechanical failure.

The journalists eventually returned safely to Khartoum. Ahmed’s report was published in Al-Sudani, the pro-government newspaper he works for. However, another more realistic account was published and circulated online by someone named Khaled — and that version has been attributed to Ahmed.

The report gave a version of events left out of the SAF’s spokesperson’s official statements. It painted a picture of an exhausted and confused army that actually isn’t in control of a ghost-town that the government claims it controls.

On 4 June security forces arrested Ahmed, as the report included eye-witness details drawn from the trip, and was penned by someone that shares his first name.

“I reserve the right to remain silent — I can’t answer”, said Ahmed when asked about whether or not he wrote the more honest account.

“I was told that I am detained due to a complaint filed by the army, I was interrogated for two days and asked about whether I wrote the article. I denied it, but they told me that I will be charged,” said Ahmed.

Ahmed is now facing four charges: harming the morale of the armed forces, sharing military information, tarnishing the reputation of the Chief of Staff, as well as electronic publishing (as per the new electronics crimes laws). He also said that his email and Facebook page were hacked.

The Electronic Crimes Police, which deals with crimes online, held Ahmed for a day. The law, (passed in 2007), means that journalists publishing online, as well as individuals discussing “sensitive” issues on social media websites could be detained, fined, and tried. He faces up to five years in jail as well as a fine.

Sudan will soon begin to implement its new electronic crimes laws, and Ahmed could become the first journalist to be tried under those laws. Another journalist, Wael Taha, was taken to court by a lawyer who claimed that he published false information about her under a penname, but the case was dismissed for insufficient evidence.

Just ten days after Ahmed’s detention, Dr. Nafie Ali Nafie, a presidential aide, told the legislative council of Khartoum state that the Sudanese army cannot curb the SRF, and that it needs support and mobilisation from the public.

Ahmed was released on bail on 7 June, but he was summoned twice for interrogation since.

Reem Abbas is a Sudanese freelance journalist. She has been published in Inter-Press Service (IPS), IRIN news, the Women International Perspective, (the WIP), Menassat and daily Sudanese newspapers. She tweets at @ReemShawkat

Media and bloggers censored as protests spread across Sudan

On 17 June, when a number of female students led a peaceful protest marching from the female dormitories to the male ones at the University of Khartoum, they did not know that they would inspire protests across the country. Many inside Sudan are calling the ongoing protests an “Intifada” —  an Arabic word for  rebellion or resistance — and there is much truth in that.

The students continued protesting inside the university, where they were met with heavy tear gas, and soon enough Ahlia University, Sudan University and others followed suit in the next days. Clashes ensued following the crackdown, not only between the students and police, but also between student protesters and protesters affiliated with the ruling party, the National Congress Party (NCP).

During the course of the week, activists and students prepared for a day of mass protests planned for 22 June, dubbed “Sandstorm Friday”, a reference to the country’s season of sandstorms from June to August. When the day finally came, the intense protests erupted into clashes between security forces and protesters, with activists claiming that dozens protesters were arrested.

A college student arrested during the protest told Index that the police stations were overflowing with arrested protesters, who were released but still face charges.

Well-known blogger Usamah Mohamed, known on Twitter as @simsimt, was detained by the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) during the protests, and continues to be held in custody. Mohamed has been a long-time critic of Sudan’s government. His arrest came after he posted a video on why he would join the mass protests for Al-Jazeera’s The Stream.

The home of prominent blogger, journalist, and social media activist Maha El-Sanosi was raided on the evening of 26 June, and her laptop and cellphone were confiscated.

In a phone call, her sister said that 12-15 NISS officers entered the house asking for El-Sanosi. She then spent hours in interrogation with NISS officers, and has been detained twice since the start of protests.

The Sudanese press ignored the story for a few days, in fear that covering the unrest would result in confiscation of issues of newspapers.

Authorities have made various attempts to silence citizen journalists and activists, including confiscating communication devices, and detaining them for prolonged periods of questioning.

Prolific citizen journalist Nagla Seed-Ahmed, who has filmed thousands of interviews with protesters and demonstrations on her cameras and phone, has been summoned by security forces almost on a daily basis.

As a result of a lack of food and water during her long hours in detention, the activist was hospitalised for two consecutive days for low blood pressure.

Another activist, Rashaida Shams Al-Deen, had her phone confiscated when she was arrested during the first week of protests.

“When it was finally returned to me, I was unable to take video or photos,” she told Index a day before she was detained once more on 24 June evening. She has not been released since.

Access to information has also been difficult for activists who do not use social networking sites, as the National Telecommunications Council has blocked a number of online Sudanese newspapers, which cover issues impossible to write about in the country’s strictly controlled print media.

Hurriyat and Al-Rakoba, two websites known for their anti-government stance and for giving banned writers a venue to continue publishing, were blocked inside Sudan and are only available through a proxy.

Readers have turned to Facebook and Twitter for information. Youth groups and activists have been using the social networking sites to post up-to-date news on protests, detentions, videos, and articles. Social media sites, however, leave users vulnerable, with easily discovered IP addresses and attacks from “cyber jihadists” who try to discredit and target the work of local social media users.

They send messages to those covering protests, trying to cast doubt on the very existence of protests. The message is almost identical and reads ” I was just in [name of area of protest], I didn’t see anything, stop lying.”

Activists, however, have found ways to respond to attacks. A blog called “Not Sudan Protests” was started last week to differentiate between fake and original pictures.

A week later, on 29 June, the Sudanese protested on a day called “lick your elbows” Friday, playing on a common phrase used by President Omar al-Bashir, who has dismissed Sudan’s protest movement, and dismissed attempts to oust him as being as likely to succeed as an attempt to lick one’s own elbows, implying that it would be impossible.

For days before the protests, the regime made it difficult for journalists and social media activists to do their jobs. Other than arrests and confiscations, the security deported Salma Al-Wardany, Bloomberg’s Khartoum correspondent on 26 June for covering the ongoing protests.

The internet was slowed down the whole week, but on 28 June night, some internet providers intentionally cut off the internet services entirely, making it difficult for people to use social media for campaigning and communicating.

Activists estimate that 1,000 were detained by Friday night including journalists such as Talaal Saad and Anwar Al-Samani. In previous protests, photographers were singled out for arrests leading activists to advise protestors to avoid carrying bags. In a more extreme move,  the office of AFP was raided for pictures of the protests the same evening.

As the protests continue in Khartoum, activists are expecting to see more arrests and a larger crackdown on social media users as it is now seen as the voice of the revolution. The traditional media, on the other hand, is now forced into a coma.

Reem Abbas is a Sudanese freelance journalist. She has been published in Inter-Press Service (IPS), IRIN news, the Women International Perspective, (the WIP), Menassat and daily Sudanese newspapers. She tweets at @ReemShawkat

Press under attack in Sudan

“The press in Sudan is going through the most intense crackdown,” said Adil Color, a writer and editor at Al-Midan newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP). “If we publish an issue [of the newspaper] that is critical and includes topics the government is uncomfortable with — such as the conflicts in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan — they punish us by confiscating our next issue.”

Al-Midan’s print run has been confiscated on four different occasions in the last month, most recently on 24 April, but the newspaper remains defiant. For many years it has had to be distributed underground when the SCP was a banned in Sudan. The tabloid’s byline now reads “daily newspaper, but temporarily published on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday”.

In a recent contribution to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Blog, a Sudanese journalist and activist, Abdelgadir Mohamed Abdelgadir, claimed that the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) confiscates independent newspapers as a way of censoring the press.

This strategy, believes Abdelgadir “focuses on economic impoverishment —  leaving newspapers more vulnerable than ever.” Most newspapers in Sudan generate income from newspaper sales and advertisements, but independent newspapers that publish daring reports like Al-Midan and Al-Ayam depend on selling the few thousand copies they print, being unable to afford large print runs.

“Al-Midan does not get any advertisements from government companies like other newspapers, and private companies fear repercussions, so they also do not approach us for advertising,” said Color.

The “vulnerability” referred to in CPJ’s blogpost is best seen when editor-in-chiefs are pressured into making decisions for the benefit of the newspaper and the dozens of employees . When the Al-Jareeda newspaper was confiscated on 27 and 29 March because it wouldn’t stop publishing the daily columns by Zuhair Al-Siraj, a Canada-based Sudanese columnist who is critical of the government in his writings, the financial losses forced the newspaper’s management to cancel the column.

“Newspapers are not really given a choice, they can continue publishing as long as they do not allow certain journalists to write,” said Salih Mahmoud, a lawyer who is part of the newly-established Sudanese Council to Defend Rights (SCDR).

Starting this Tuesday, another writer, Heydar Al-Mokashy, will not be able to write for a week.

Mahmoud points out that the topics the state considers red lines are usually national issues that touch upon the future of the country. The booby-trapped subjects include: the wars in Blue Nile, Southern Kordofan and Darfur, and human-rights abuses but the list of banned topics grows every day.

Alawia Mukhtar, a journalist at the Al-Sahafa newspaper was moved from the patch she used to cover, South Sudan, after the paper’s management began receiving text messages from the NISS demanding it remove and/or halt the publication of any news about South Sudan.

“I cannot write about South Sudan because I can’t publish the opinions of sources from there, ” says a frustrated Mukhtar, who claims she has been accused of being part of the banned political party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North Sudan Faction, (SPLM-N) because her writings introduced her to many SPLM-N sources.

Recently, the speaker of parliament and a well-known Sudanese official both said that any journalist who interviews a source from a rebel movement is betraying his nation. Sudan’s Vice-President, Ali Osman Mohamed Taha,  has spoken about a fifth column that is under scrutiny in light of the current clashes between Sudan and South Sudan, accused of spreading rumours that there is a lack of petroleum and other needs as war looms. Mukhtar thinks they are referring to journalists and that this is a direct threat.

From her perspective, Muktar feels trapped in a world where a text message sent to her boss, the editor-in-chief, can deem a story she worked on for hours “unpublishable”, but at least she is still able to see her byline in print.

Mujahid Abdullah  has worked as a journalist since he graduated from university. From 2005, he was published in four different newspapers and was a well-known name until he was banned from writing in all print newspapers in Sudan. Abdullah says: “The ban came about 20 days ago, I feel like I was confiscated  along with my pen, I’m waiting to be returned to the newsstand.”

Abdullah’s last job was writing for Alwan, a newspaper that was suspended for about 2 months from January to March this year. “I feel like my civil and constitutional rights and my right to make a living were taken away from me,” he adds.

The decision to ban him from writing was delivered orally, as are many NISS decisions. When newspapers are forced to kill stories or an edition is confiscated the message is normally delivered by an NISS officer talking directly to the editor-in-chief or in a short and succinct phone call.

In theory, the NISS does not have the power to confiscate newspapers, or to ban a newspapers and journalist or in fact, carry out any act against the press. If it believes that a certain journalist of newspaper is impacting national security, the security apparatus should file a complaint at the Press and Publications Council, the only body responsible for all print media.

“When we asked the Press and Publication Council about our case, they said the NISS does not tell us when they carry out such things,” says Adil Color.

Reem Abbas is a Sudanese freelance journalist. She has been published in Inter-Press Service (IPS), IRIN news, the Women International Perspective, (the WIP), Menassat and daily Sudanese newspapers. She tweets at @ReemShawkat

Sudan’s security service closes newspapers

Sudan’s National Intelligence Security Services (NISS) suspended Alwan, an independent daily newspaper On Friday 13 January. On Thursday and Friday morning, copies of the newspaper were confiscated post-publication, but the editor-in-chief was only informed of the suspension on Friday.

Shadia Ahmad, a journalist with Alwan, said rumours suggest that a political interview published recently has instigated this harsh decision.

“This is what we are hearing, but so far the editor-in-chief has yet to receive the official written decision to suspend the newspaper which should have clear reasons,” said Ahmad.

Ahmad added that there are probably a number of reasons for the suspension, commenting that if it was only the interview which was to blame for the suspension, the journalist who wrote the article would have faced problems, rather than the newspaper.

Alwan faces charges under article 24, the responsibilities of editors, and article 26, the responsibilities of journalists, of the 2009 Press Laws.

The newspapere was closed down for almost two years in 2008 after publishing a report on a military operation. It came back a little over a year ago.

Earlier this month, the NISS suspended Rai Al Shaab, an opposition newspaper affiliated with the Popular Congress Party (PCP). The head of the NISS stated that Rai Al Shaab violated Sudan’s ” “professional and ethical standards,”

In early 2010, Rai Al Shaab’s deputy editor-in-chief was arrested, tortured and detained for over a year and it was shut down for a year and a half.

Since it began publishing again in October 2011, it has faced constant harassment from the NISS. Two weeks ago, officers raided the newspaper’s premises, confiscated equipment and occupied the offices.

Ahmed Haroun, a Rai Al Shaab journalist, said that he was called in for questioning before the suspension.

“I was interrogated about an article I wrote in November and I was released, but I still have to go to court,” said Haroun.

Lawyer Nabil Adib says that the closure of Rai Al Shaab is illegal.

“It does not abide by the constitution since they can not suspend it before the necessary measures are taken — as in having an actual trial,” said Adib who added that the penalty came before the trial.

Commenting on the recent re-launch of Al Jareeda, an independent newspaper that was suspended by the NISS last September, Adib stated that they are unlikely to publish the same daring material they used to publish before they were shut down.

In recent years, two decisions were instrumental in the new wave of crackdowns on press freedoms in Sudan. Firstly, the controversial 2009 press laws which allow the state to intervene in issues of national security; second, in 2010 the NISS was given many immunities and rights under the 2010 National Security Act. Through this act, the NISS is allowed to take action on issues of national security which range from detaining journalists for extended periods of time, suing journalists and subjecting them to hefty fines and even closing down newspapers.

Many high-profile journalists including Amal Habbani, Faisal Mohamed Salih, Dr Nahid Al Hassan and Dr Omer Al Garrai are still facing charges and ongoing trials for writing about the rape of Safia Ishaq, a young activist who was arrested after taking part in protests and raped by three security men while in detention.

“They aim to waste your time and stop your life” Amal Habbani commented on the lengthy trial.

Last month, Dr Nahid Al Hassan, a psychiatrist working with victims of sexual assault and abuse was told in court by the judge that evidence proves that Safia Ishaq was not raped.

“You jeopardised the people’s trust in the security forces by writing about an incident that never happened,” said Mudathir Al Rashid, a judge who is known as the “journalist cases judge” for taking up notorious cases against journalists.

Reem Abbas is a Sudani freelance journalist. She is published in Inter-Press Service (IPS), IRIN news, the Women International Perspective, (the WIP), Menassat and daily Sudanese newspapers. She tweets at @ReemShawkat