New magazine Atar fills information void in Sudan

Atar, a digital magazine distributed via email and WhatsApp, first came to my attention late last October. I was in a dimly lit New York cafe, warmed by the company of a group of Sudanese diaspora; artists, activists, journalists, nursing hot teas and wounded souls. As it often does, the question of obtaining high quality Sudani news bubbled up. “Have you heard about Atar yet?’ someone asked. I hadn’t, yet. But this interaction was instructive. With their formal website still under construction, word-of-mouth was one of the main ways this weekly Arabic (bi-monthly English) magazine was being found.

An initiative of the non-for-profit Sudan Facts Center for Journalism Services – founded by veteran journalist Arif Elsaui – Atar began publishing on 12 October 2023, six months into the war against civilians in Sudan. Co-managing director Amar Jamal told Index it was a project borne of necessity.

“We had been talking about theory for a long time,” Jamal said. “But with the current situation, we realised there won’t be any more media outlets in Sudan left.”

Sudan Facts Center had been running fellowships for young professional journalists, but the crisis spurred them into pushing forward with their greater ambitions. “If we were going to wait until the perfect conditions, we would be waiting a long time. Let us start, and improve as we go along,” Jamal noted.

Since October, the Atar team has produced 28 Arabic editions and four in English. Inspired by The Continent, another popular African digital news magazine, Atar – with the tagline “Sudan in Perspective” – is currently distributed through Telegram, WhatsApp, Signal and email.

“There hasn’t been a day when our distribution list hasn’t grown,” Jamal said.

Stories range from investigations into “Sudan’s labyrinth of torture centres” to the stories of those fleeing the war north through Egypt. Early editions reported on the daily experiences of Sudanese people during the conflict, how they “eat, drink and sleep” and their “daily heroism”, while more recent releases focus on the mutual aid infrastructure keeping people alive.

Not only was the content of the story important to get right, Jamal said, but the voice and tone of the publication was given thorough consideration.

“We stay away from tragic language. While we are writing about death, we write about it with heroism.” Not necessarily out of a desire to give readers hope, “but to give people an encouraging word”.

Atar began with three editors in Nairobi – Arif Elsaui, Amar Jamal and Mohammed Alsadiq – and four correspondents. The first releases were focused on the written word, delivering vital information via dense blocks of text, not unlike the traditional Sudanese newspaper. But this model changed after the team took stock 10 weeks into the project. Over the new year period, “we took a break to review the structure and design, expand our pool of reporters, institutionalise the project so it wouldn’t fail,” Amar said.

Today, Atar is delivered by 24 reporters and seven editors. The growth is palpable, not only in the range of stories, but in their design. The structure and voice of Atar is unique, deliberately so. “This is not a newspaper, delivering daily stories,” Amar makes clear. Atar is focused on analysis, curation, about showing the verification and the context for your average reader to make sense of unfolding events.

“The need for a newspaper has changed in the age of social media,” said Jamal, noting that in an age of camera phones, the recording of events has been democratised.

“What is needed now is the verification and context. That is our ambition. Respecting the intellect of the Sudanese reader, and presenting material that yes, might be difficult, but it has value. The value it has is in its truth.”

Atar is providing a home for fact-based news in a prohibitive information landscape. There are few players in Sudan today, fewer still after the state suspended operations of three satellite channels this April, Saudi state-owned broadcasters Al Arabiya and Al Hadath and UAE-owned Sky News Arabia.

“All of the correspondents that we began with have had to leave the country,” Amar admitted. “It’s very difficult to write from the inside.” But difficult is not impossible, and Atar consistently manages to publish original stories from the ground.

“Sometimes, stories are written under the Atar byline to protect the journalist,” Jamal said, describing how their local correspondents find ways to contact sources and file stories even in the most challenging circumstances. “Even when the internet was cut off,” he said. “You just adjust your investigative style.”

Atar’s popularity now means that they are regularly approached by writers, reporters and potential sources as an outlet for news, with some sending in fully written pieces for publication. Atar pride themselves on having an open-door policy, allowing anyone to submit material via phone or email, but only work that goes through their fact-checking system will be included in the magazine. The volume of engagement and interest is a “scream from the people,” Jamal said. Even a 14-year-old girl sent a piece with some news. These are people’s voices who are not heard and Atar wants to be a home for them.

Such grounded local reporting cultivates intense loyalty and support, such as in the case of the small island of Dagarti. “It has maybe only 300, 400 inhabitants,” Jamal said. “Nobody had written about these people before. But when our journalist went to do a follow-up story, she said the whole island waits for Thursday so they can read Atar.”

What next for Atar? The team has big ambitions. Their English-language edition was always part of the plan, because “it isn’t just the Sudanese reader that cares about Sudan.” They have recently moved into a new, larger office in Nairobi, with talk of a live studio arm, events and more. Their approach is experimental, and with enough funding in the bank for the moment, Jamal is excited about the future.

Jamal is not the only one. If this is what the Sudanese people can do in the most inhospitable of circumstances, imagine the possibilities once the war is over.

Why we cannot afford to look away

The world seems to be breaking at the seams. Our news is filled with images of war and the horror and fear that accompany them. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the suffering and devastation wrought by war and to be distracted from established conflicts as new ones emerge.

This week, Russia’s ongoing and illegal aggression in Ukraine has almost passed without comment but Russia’s announcement of more mercenaries, coupled with Ukraine’s adjustment of conscription laws to enlist younger individuals, and the dwindling air defences amidst brutal bombardments by Russia on innocent families, serve as stark reminders of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

It’s a scenario we’ve seen unfold before. Initially, a conflict captures our attention, eliciting outcry and calls for action. However, as time passes, disaster fatigue sets in, a new disaster hits the news and the plight of those affected fades from public discourse. This is understandable and a completely human reaction. Horrors being played out on television screens night after night harm wellbeing and in some situations drive communities in other nations further apart.

The situation in Sudan stands as a harrowing testament to this phenomenon. Last week marked the first anniversary of the war in the region, yet over 8 million people are displaced, journalists continue to face persecution and activists and human rights defenders who strive to tell us the stories of atrocities unfolding are finding it harder by the day.

We must not allow history to repeat itself. In Ukraine we are at risk of seeing this happen. Every conflict demands our attention and action. While these wars may seem distant, the consequences of our indifference reverberate globally. Without international pressure for de-escalation and accountability, the waves of violence will inevitably crash upon our shores.

At Index on Censorship, we understand the fundamental role that freedom of expression plays in holding power to account and safeguarding human rights. When journalists are silenced, when dissidents are suppressed, the fabric of democracy unravels, leaving room for tyranny to flourish.

The illegal invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin is not just a regional conflict; it is a test of our collective resolve to uphold the principles of peace, freedom, and justice. As the world watches, we cannot afford to look away. We must stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, amplifying their voices and advocating for an end to the Russian violence and aggression.

It is imperative that we keep the spotlight firmly fixed on Ukraine, ensuring that the atrocities committed do not fade into obscurity. Through relentless advocacy, robust journalism, and unwavering solidarity, we can make a difference. Let us not forget the lessons of the past, nor forsake our responsibility to act in the face of injustice.

Together, let us reaffirm our commitment to a world where freedom of expression is cherished, where human dignity is upheld, and where dissidents are free to highlight the plight within their nations.

Remembering the women who pay the ultimate price for freedom

Today is International Women’s Day. It’s a day that inspires huge optimism in me. A day that reminds me of the extraordinary ability of women to lead, to challenge and to win – in spite of the odds, which in some countries can seem insurmountable.

But is it also important that we recognise a stark reality on IWD – this day cannot be truly marked without acknowledging the suffering and sacrifice endured by female dissidents worldwide in their relentless pursuit of freedom of expression.

While International Women’s Day traditionally serves as a platform to honour the achievements and progress of women, there is a responsibility on us to shine a spotlight on those whose voices have been silenced, whose courage has been met with oppression, and whose sacrifices have been monumental in the fight for justice and equality.

The stories of these brave women, from every corner of the globe, are not just anecdotes – they are testaments to the enduring struggle for fundamental human rights.

In the past twelve months alone, we have witnessed a staggering number of brave women who dared to challenge the status quo, only to meet untimely and tragic ends. Their names may not echo through the halls of power, but their legacies will forever reverberate in the annals of history.

Halima Idris Salim, Mossamat Sahara, Farah Omar, Vivian Silver, Ángela León, Olga Nazarenko, Maria Bernadete Pacífico, Armita Geravand, Tinashe Chitsunge, Samantha Gómez Fonseca, Rose Mugarurirwe, Heba Suhaib Haj Arif, Ludivia Galindez, Bahjaa Abdelaa Abdelaa, Teresa Magueyal – these are not just names on a list. They are beacons of courage, symbols of resistance in the face of tyranny and oppression.

From Sudan to Bangladesh, Lebanon to Canada, these women hailed from different corners of the globe, united by a common cause: the pursuit of justice. Whether they were journalists, activists, or ordinary citizens, they refused to be silenced. They refused to cower in the face of adversity.

In authoritarian regimes, the price of dissent is often paid in blood. Every day, countless women are harassed, detained, and murdered for daring to speak out against injustice.

Their names may never make headlines, but their sacrifices will not be forgotten. On International Women’s Day, let us heed the theme of Inspire Inclusion and draw inspiration from these courageous women. Let us honour their memory by continuing their fight for a world where freedom of expression is not just a privilege, but a fundamental human right.

We need to remember that the courage and sacrifice of women dissidents cannot be relegated to a single day of recognition. Their stories must remain forefront in our minds every day. We must commit to amplifying their voices, advocating for their rights, and standing in solidarity with them against oppression. Their fight is ongoing, and it is our responsibility to ensure that they are never forgotten.

The deadly challenges of reporting on Sudan’s “forgotten war”

Described by The Economist as “The Forgotten War”, the current conflict in Sudan may have escaped the notice of the average news consumer. Beyond headlines of rushed evacuations shortly after the hostility erupted in April 2023 and mastheads warning of an “Afghanistan repeat”, the situation in the north-eastern African nation has rapidly receded from view. Google searches reflect a similar trend: a brief spike in interest when the war began, declining within a couple of weeks and plateauing since. But has the war been “forgotten” or “underreported”?

Reporting on Sudan has been a complex challenge for decades. During the reign of President Omar El-Bashir (1989-2019) Sudan was one of the most difficult media environments in the world, with journalists facing censorship, harassment and imprisonment on a routine basis. The Revolution of 2018/2019 introduced a period of hopeful respite, with the re-establishment of an independent journalist’s union having over a thousand members, hundreds of whom voted for the Syndicate’s formation. However, many of these gains have been lost in the months since April 2023.

Security is one of the primary issues. The simple act of asking questions, or holding a camera, places a target on your back. “Revealing oneself as a journalist is perilous,” said one respondent in a recent survey, a concern echoed widely in the journalistic community. A Unesco supported poll, conducted by NGO Media in Cooperation and Transition in November 2023, revealed more than half of the respondents had experienced physical (53%) and digital (51%) threats. In September 2023, Sudanese Journalists’ Syndicate reported 249 violations against journalists, including murder, in the four months since the outbreak of the war. This number did not include detentions of the team of the Sudan National Broadcasting Corporation, Hala96 FM, Alhurra Channel and RT in Khartoum, due to lack of available data.

Threats are not confined to the reporters themselves, with many journalists’ families also the victims of attacks. In a recent investigation, the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism documented the story of Manal Ali, kidnapped and tortured for her independent reporting into rape incidents in Darfur.

“They had a list…and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) were searching for us by name. They destroyed my house completely,” Manal told the ARIJ. While being held by the RSF, she was severely beaten, tortured and threatened. “We killed some of your family members, and we will torture you by letting you see the rest of your family being killed,” she was told. “Then, killing you will become easy.”

In addition to the critical security situation, even accessing basic utilities presents challenges. The availability of electricity, reliable internet connections and telecom networks cannot be taken for granted, which makes reporting almost impossible. Many journalists have fled to neighbouring countries like Chad, Egypt and Eritrea. For those who stayed, only 23% receive a paycheck, typically under $100 a month.

This is a “sector faced with an existential crisis” said Tawfik Jelassi, Unesco's assistant director-general for communication and information.

In a twisted metaphor, at the outset of the conflict, the premises of the national Radio and Television Corporation were taken over by the RSF and turned into military barracks. Numerous media outlets have closed, and international journalists are having their entry visas into the nation denied. For journalists from the Sudanese diaspora, or with residency in Sudan, entry still requires clearance either from the Sudanese Armed Forces or the RSF, depending on the area in question. This is both difficult to achieve and comes with no guarantee of safety, due to the febrile nature of the conflict.

The high risk for journalists in Sudan has led to a dearth of professional reporting from the ground. In this environment it’s unsurprising that self-censorship is flourishing. Those journalists who remain in the country report either practising self-censorship or dealing with direct requests to modify, delete or publish specific content. It is even becoming challenging to report facts without being seen as “taking a side”.

At the same time as the war has dragged on, journalists who might have ordinarily been reserved about their political inclinations feel like they do have to take a position.

“This war is being framed as a war about the very existence of the Sudanese state,” said veteran journalist Isma’il Kushkush.

It is becoming difficult to find nuanced positions, and the concept of objectivity itself is being challenged by readers. In a conflict that is dividing the nation, even the journalists are being polarised. For citizen journalists, this challenge is even more pronounced, with readers and social media users frequently attacking those sharing news as supporting one of the warring parties.

There are reports of efforts to establish new platforms in Sudan to bolster and enrich the media ecosystem. One such example is the US-based Sudan Broadcasting Corporation, involving Luqman Ahmed, the former head of Sudan Radio and TV Corporation. The SBC joins Radio Dabanga and Sudan Tribune as news sources on Sudan based outside the direct reach of the state. But although a handful of Arabic-language satellite news channels, including Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, continue to report from the ground, the challenges to communicating the events of Sudan’s war to the world are extreme.

“People want to know who is the good guy and who is the bad guy,” said Kushkush. The problem is the complexity of Sudan’s situation eludes a simple narrative. And, in a global context where numerous other conflicts are live and pressing - including Gaza and Ukraine - there is only so far attention spans and resources can stretch.

Still, that can’t be an excuse. In 2023, Sudan topped the International Rescue Committee’s Emergency Watchlist, analysing countries “most likely to experience a deteriorating humanitarian crisis”. This month, the Clingendael Institute reported that looming famine means most likely “seven million people will face catastrophic levels of hunger by June 2024…and a half million people will die.”

At the end of the day, whatever the complexities, “it’s a human story” as Kushkush said. “The tragedy of displacement and death.”