Reacting to the Khartoum high court’s decision yesterday to withdraw the English-language Khartoum Monitor newspaper’s licence and thereby force it to close, Reporters Without Borders today issued an "urgent appeal" to the United Nations not to let press freedom be "the poor relation" of the return to peace in Sudan.
"What further act of censorship is the UN waiting for before it demands that the Sudanese authorities respect press freedom?" the organisation asked. "The government has the audacity to proclaim its support for democratic principles, yet it responds to the least criticism in the press with police surveillance and draconian court rulings."
One of Sudan’s three independent dailies, the Khartoum Monitor had already been closely monitored by the police since 21 May, with each issue subject to careful vetting by state security agents before it was printed.
"Now the authorities have disinterred an old court case and schemed in secrecy in order silence the newspaper altogether," Reporters Without Borders said. "If the international community does nothing to make them back down now, it will give them a clear green light to put a stranglehold on all of Sudan’s independent journalists."
The withdrawal of the Khartoum Monitor’s licence was ordered in letter with yesterday’s date by high court judge Ismat Sulaman Hassan. It upheld a lower court’s decision in July 2003 to suspend the newspaper’s licence after it published an interview in which Santino Deng, a former minister who has since died, accused the government of practising forms of slavery.
The original closure order was subsequently lifted by an appeal court and the newspaper was able to resume publishing. Commenting on yesterday’s ruling, managing editor Alfred Taban said he was completely unaware that the case had been revived and referred to a higher court.
The Khartoum Monitor has often defended the population in southern Sudan and, like many other newspapers and journalists, it had been the target of coercive measures in the past.
It was raided on 21 May by state security police who demanded the withdrawal of a report and an editorial about deadly clashes between anti-riot police and civilians from the south and the western Darfur region in a camp for displaced persons south of the capital. The next day, the police told staff they would come to the printing press each evening to ensure the next day’s issue contained nothing that "went too far."