By Reem Abbas
The family of detained journalist Amel Habbani calling for her release
As protests have taken place in Sudan over the past week, the government has attempted to control the flow of information and has targeted members of the medi.
“Why do you insist on lying? We all know that the martyrs were killed by National Congress Party (NCP) militias?” This was the question asked by Burham Abdel-Moniem, a journalist working at Al-Youm Al-Taly in a press conference , broadcast live on Tuesday, with the Governor of Khartoum state as well as the Ministers of Interior and Information, respectively.
The Minister of Information could barely conceal his anger, mumbling that the journalist would be dealt with for accusing the ruling party of killing protestors. Moments later, Abdel-Moniem found himself kicked out of the hall and summoned by the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS).
“I was told that I should have worded my question better since the country is now in a barrel of gunpowder and could explode, I told them killing innocent people is why the country is in a barrel of gunpowder,” Abdel-Moniem explained to Doha Centre for Media Freedom.
Abdel-Moniem was then attacked personally in an article published by a member of the NISS in yesterday’s issue of Al-Youm Al-Taly. But the journalist has also been championed as a national hero and a Facebook page carrying his name was liked over 3000 times in less than an hour.
“I am not scared about my personal safety, but I’m scared about the future of the Sudanese press and I’m scared about my country. I am just a normal journalist, I’m not too precious to die for my country and people,” said Abdel-Moniem in an interview, adding that he will continue working.
The Sudanese press situation has changed dramatically over the past few days. Four newspapers have been shut down, including the largest newspaper, Al-Intibaha, at least five journalists were stopped from writing, three journalists were detained in addition to the prevalence of self-censorship and censorship by NISS.
“They sat down the editors-in-chief like school children, told them stop being ill-mannered and forget about media and press ethics,” said a source who wished to remain anonymous.
The source referred to a meeting held by the NISS and editors-in-chief on Wednesday of last week, in the height of mass protests in Sudan that the government said has claimed 33 lives, while the doctor’s syndicate stated that the death toll has reached 210.
Peaceful protestors have taken to the streets last week all over Sudan to protest the lifting of the fuel subsidies which doubled and tripled prices of all basic items. The protests led to confrontations between police and protestors, resulting in the burning of at least two police stations and several gas stations as well as the firing of live bullets.
The government has described the situation as a rampage by uncontrolled gangs and referred to the protesters as “saboteurs,” sending press releases to the newspapers about the saboteurs and how they caused harm to citizens’ lives and property.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place
Awad Mohamed Awad who is the publisher of Al-Jareeda Newspaper, an independent newspaper in Khartoum, told DCMF that after the meeting with NISS, the newspaper decided to stop issuing.
“NISS told us that we have to publish the government side of the story only and if we cannot accommodate it, they will understand if we decide not to issue. We stopped publishing because we can’t abide by their standards, ethically and professionally-speaking,” said Awad adding that other newspapers also stopped publishing.
As Al-Jareedadisappeared from the newsstands, the NISS began pressuring the newspaper’s administration to start issuing again.
“When we told them again that we will not issue until we can report what is happening, we were told that we are prohibited from publishing, indefinitely,” said Awad adding that a columnist at their newspaper, Dr. Zuheir Al-Sarraj, was also stopped from writing.
During the press conference, the Minister of Information said that media outlets choosing not to present a positive image of events can resume publishing after the security situation is under control.
Awad believes that the Minister was referring to newspapers like Al-Jareeda in his speech.
A day after the controversial meeting between NISS and editors, the executive secretariat of the Sudanese Journalists Network (SJN), an independent body and a rival to the governmental Sudanese Journalist’s Union, sat down in a meeting to decide on how to take action.
“We decided to go on strike on Saturday 28th of September, to protest the results of the meeting and because newspapers like Al-Jareeda, Al-Ayam and Al-Qararwere already deciding to stop publishing,” said Mohamed Al-Fateh from the SJN’s executive secretariat.
80% of journalists in all newspapers took part in the strike which was seen as successful by the SJN.
“Then, the NISS began calling newspapers to get names of journalists on strike and the editors-in-chief of various newspapers told their journalists that based on Labour Law, they would be fired if the strike continues over three days in a row,” Al-Fateh explained.
The SJN decided to get back to work on Monday so the journalists could work for one day and then strike for two days.
“We will continue this way until we feel that the working situation is suitable for journalists to work,” added Al-Fateh in a phone interview with DCMF.
“Deteriorating working conditions”
Amidst the strike and the deteriorating working conditions for journalists, four journalists from one of the biggest dailies, Al-Sahafaquit their newspapers to protest its stance. Al-Sahafa’sheadlines for days blamed the protests on saboteurs and published reports on the destruction caused by the protestors.
Moreover, three journalists were arrested while covering protests or silent stands. One of which, Amel Habbani, an award-winning journalist and columnist with Al-Khartoumnewspaper, has been in detention since Saturday.
“We received a call from the NISS four days ago, telling us that they have her and she is being interrogated, they asked us to bring her clothes,” said Shawqi Abdel-Azeem, Habbani’s husband.
Abdel-Azeem added that Habbani was arrested while covering the funeral of Salah Sanhouri, a protestor who was allegedly shot dead during Friday’s mass protests.
“We still don’t know how long she will be held or where she is being kept,” said Abdel-Azeem who is also a well-known journalist.
While Sanhouri and others lost their lives on Friday’s protests, the offices of Al-Arabiya, an Arab world news channel, and Sky News Arabia, the Abu-Dhabi based branch of the British Sky News, were closed down in Khartoum on Friday afternoon for their coverage of the ongoing movement as mass protests took place in different places in Sudan.
The Sky News team in Khartoum was summoned last Wednesday and Thursday, but the channel was officially closed by the NISS on Friday afternoon.
“I was summoned on Wednesday due to a story on Sky News based on a video showing army personnel joining protestors. We were asked to apologise, I told them that the army needs to deny the reports instead,” said Tarik Al-Tijani, Sky News correspondent in Khartoum.
Al-Tijani and his cameraman’s press cards issued by the External Media Unit at the Ministry of Information were confiscated leaving them unable to attend press conferences, film or do any coverage for the channel.
“The Minister of Foreign Affairs said this closure is temporary and they are looking into it, we are waiting to get back to work,” said Al-Tijani to DCMF.