By Victoria Baux
Sudanese dailies, tightly controlled by the government, with a critical story run the risk to be suspended (Source AFP).
Consistently ranked among the bottom ten countries in the annual Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, (170th since 2011), Sudan seems to have a long way to go before it eventually reaches acceptable press freedom standards.
Omar Al-Bashir’s 1989 coup d’état started an era of ethnic-based civil war in the country’s frontier regions – namely South Sudan and Darfur – tragically characterised by blatant human rights violations. Since then, journalists have been dissuaded from criticising the government.
Bashir is the only sitting head of state against whom the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant related to war crimes and genocide, crimes for which he will likely not be held to account.
The war between north and Sudan is said to have resulted in the deaths of 2 million people, while 4 million have had to flee the country. The conflict ended in 2005 with the signature of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the government led by Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) and the South’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
Officially, the CPA created a new space for journalists to express their voice and reduced the common practice of censoring newspapers prior to publication. But in practice, journalists have been facing threats and harassment throughout Bashir’s tenure.
In July 2011, South Sudan gained independence from Sudan.
In 2008, the UN estimated that the Darfur conflict had killed at least 300,000 victims. But Sudan says the Western media has exaggerated the conflict, claiming that only 10,000 people died.
It has been widely said and acknowledged that the war in Darfur was badly reported. It generated the guilt of Western journalists, disinterest of the Arab media, and locally, there was not much Sudanese journalists could do as the pressure to “stay quiet” forced them to keep their mouths shut. Meanwhile, access to the Darfur region is still dangerous, if not impossible.
Well-travelled American journalist Amy Costello who had been to Darfur in the early 2000’s, described field work there as extremely difficult. Her access to Darfur had been facilitated by Humanitarian Agencies who were themselves facing the constant threat of being expelled. “Most aid groups didn’t want journalists travelling in their vehicles because of the extremely delicate political situation that exists between aid agencies and the Sudanese government. Aid workers have to renew their visas every few months. If they’re seen to have a role in assisting journalists to write stories critical of the government, it could jeopardise their agency’s ability to remain in Sudan. Many aid workers were willing to speak about the work they do to alleviate suffering, but most refused to go on record about their frustrations with the government and its policies in Darfur”.
Some foreign reporters who insisted on covering the conflict without an official permission were ultimately detained and expelled from the country.
National journalists get the same treatment, if not worse, which has led to the generalisation of self-censorship. Any critical paper or newspaper runs the risk of being threatened or shut down by the NISS (National Intelligence and Security Service).
Darfur remains a taboo subject in Sudan, as proven by the arrest of journalist Nurredin Braima, after he translated into Arabic comments from a displaced woman from Darfur at a press conference for a visiting Qatari diplomat in Nyala.
Criticising the ruler or his party also tends to cause problems for media workers. In this special report, we feature the story of Somaia Ibrahim Ismail Hundosa, a woman journalist who was kidnapped and tortured in early November 2012 by the NISS before she could eventually flee the country. She was also forced to shave her hair because it looked like the hair of an Arab, but she was “a slave from Darfur”.
According to the UNHCR, since 2009, the main body responsible for taking action against newspapers and journalists was the NISS. “The NISS is permitted to take action against any newspaper viewed as a threat to national security under the controversial National Security Act.”
Intimidation techniques and newspaper closures by the NISS have been fiercely criticised by press freedom organisations and some Sudanese writers and activists like Reem Abbas, who have been monitoring press freedom in the country.
In 2012, the NISS suspended tens of newspapers, including Alwan, an independent daily newspaper which had already been closed down for almost two years in 2008 after publishing a report on a military operation. Al-Midan’s print run was confiscated on at least four different occasions, whereas Al-Sudani was suspended last January.
Establishing a new law
It is difficult to know if the legal background for the Sudanese media is likely to improve in the months to come. On one hand, Omar Al-Bashir has recently reached out to his opponents when he ordered the release of political prisoners, willing to show his commitment to “national dialogue.” The announcement came only a month after the Sudanese leader said he would step down at the next 2015 election, stressing that the country needed “fresh blood.”
But on the media front, a lot still needs to be done, especially in terms of protecting journalists.
On April 2nd and 3rd members of the political, media, law and education spheres of Sudan and Qatar met in Doha to discuss the new draft media law which has already been criticised by media freedom activists. Their recommendations were later presented at a press conference by the director of DCMF, Jan Keulen, and Afaf Tawar, Chairman of the Legislation Committee in the Sudanese Parliament.
The expectations regarding this new law, which would be a revision of the 2009 Sudanese Press and Publications Law 19 currently in place, are high but there is pessimism throughout members of the media in Sudan.
“Journalists [who saw the draft law] were shocked to find the new laws were more repressive than the 2009 press law” writes Reem Abbas adding that “The new press laws legalise closing a newspaper or a press centre, as well as cancelling the registration of a publishing house”.
The Doha Centre for Media Freedom has stressed that all aspects of journalism must be given significant attention and coverage by the new law. The section on journalists’ rights could be developed and the draft law does not mention online media.
To satisfy Sudanese journalists and legal experts, DCMF and participants in a recent meeting to discuss the draft law have suggested that the law should conform to international standards of human rights and media freedom.
Source: Doha Centre for Media Freedom
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