Passion for journalism is certainly not lacking in Sudan, but faced with constant restrictions many journalists lose their enthusiasm or choose to leave their country (AFP)
Sudan has traditionally been a country with a poor record in terms of media freedom, with journalists and rights groups regularly highlighting issues related to government suppression of freedom of expression and the mistreatment of members of the media.
The country consistently ranks among the worst in terms of press freedom around the world, and the government headed by the ICC-indicted Omar Al-Bashir is well known as an oppressor of members of the media.
Recent events across the country have once again brought the question of press freedom and the role of the government in controlling the media to the forefront of international attention.
Government cuts to subsidies on a number of commodities resulted in major demonstrations being staged across the country. As journalists in Sudan attempted to cover the protests and convey the truth of the situation on the ground to people within and outside the country, they met with significant opposition from government forces.
Members of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) have once again stepped in to make their presence felt in the media, providing newspapers with the official government line for all reports, and preventing the publication of those which chose not to toe it.
Journalists in Sudan have displayed a great deal of courage in their efforts to cover the reality of the situation of the ground over the past month. However, courage is something of a prerequisite for working in a country where journalists are subjected to intimidation and harassment in a regular basis.
In the wake of the recent demonstrations, while many journalists were identified by the authorities and ordered to stop writing, others chose to stick by their laurels and resign rather than publish and broadcast news which they knew to be false.
One journalist who stuck his head above the parapet and became perhaps the most recognisable name associated with the embattled Sudanese media, is Burham Abdel-Moniem, who openly confronted government officials at a press conference on October 1. He accused the officials of lying and demanded that they speak the truth to the people of Sudan. For his efforts he was rewarded with detention and questioning, but he remains resolute in his defence of press freedom.
Abdel-Moniem’s colleagues have also displayed fearlessness in carrying out their work, leading to many facing further persecution by the authorities. Amal Habbani, a female journalist who has faced numerous difficulties from the authorities in the past, was detained for eight days earlier this month, interrogated in unknown locations and held without charge. Her story features as a spotlight in this DCMF special report on Sudan. However, she is by no means the only woman making a stand for justice, and other female writers and activists continue to stand up for their beliefs despite the oppression they face.
Draft Media Law
Earlier this year, DCMF welcomed Sudanese National Council Member, Afaf Tawar as well as legal experts and local journalists to discuss a draft media law which is yet to be introduced.
The press law of 2009 which currently governs the Sudanese media, has been described as “the worst press law ever,” and experts had suggested that any change would represent an improvement to the present situation by default. However, as DCMF discovered, this may not be the case, and certain amendments could result in even more suppression for the media in Sudan.
Despite voicing a commitment to media freedom and to introducing international standards of protecting freedom of the press, the Sudanese government has consistently failed to demonstrate a willingness to uphold these standards.
In short, legislation of any sort is powerless when faced with serial manipulation and a total lack of transparency or enforcement. As the draft law lacks the direction to alter the current state of affairs in Sudan, it will essentially preserve a status quo in which journalists fear for their safety and constantly face persecution for carrying out their work.
Journalists in the diaspora
Because of the many difficulties facing journalists working in Sudan a large number of media workers opt to leave their home country and pursue work opportunities abroad. The media in Qatar features many Sudanese journalists who have relocated, and they have been keen to voice their support for their countrymen suffering at home.
As well as hosting the discussions on the draft media law earlier this year, Doha Centre for Media Freedom also hosted a recent solidarity stand to express their support for media workers in Sudan and demanding that the government release journalists in detention and put an end to their oppression.
While journalists abroad attempt to contribute to the media landscape at home, the battle for control of the media turns to the virtual world, and cyber conflict is beginning to play a more prominent role in the quest for media freedom and censorship in Sudan as well.
The future for Sudanese media
Essentially the media in Sudan require assurances that the government will refrain from intervening in the everyday reporting and publication of newspapers. Any legal amendments can only be fully enforced with the full backing of the government and intelligence services. Unfortunately in Sudan, these institutions are themselves creating many of the problems facing the country’s journalists.
Indeed, speaking to journalists within Sudan, and those who have chosen to ply their trade outside their home country, it immediately becomes clear that the NISS represent the most challenging threat to media freedom. The services which people would hope would work to protect them are instead contributing to the atmosphere of fear and oppression which has led to a strictly ‘Censored Sudan.’
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