Sudanese journalists are easy prey for a government which uses and abuses draconian legislation and nationalism tinged with religion and also exploits the region’s conflicts to justify repression. Some 15 journalists were arrested in 2006, as well as two foreign reporters, embarrassing witnesses to massacres in Darfur.
The massacres in Darfur are an open wound for Sudan, and one which the government does not want anyone to touch. Two foreign journalists and their assistants paid the price for this extreme sensitivity in 2006, when they were thrown in prison for having taken too close an interest in the catastrophe in the huge border region on the border with Chad.
Slovenian photographer and human rights activist, Tomo Kriznar, who is also an advisor to his country’s president, was arrested in North Darfur on 19 July. He was sentenced on 14 August to two years in prison by the criminal court of al Fashir, the state capital, for “spying”, “publication of false news” and “entering Sudan without a visa”. At this court hearing on 1st August, Kriznar admitted entering Sudan via Chad without a visa at the invitation of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), but denied the charge of espionage. The Sudanese embassy in Vienna, Austria, had refused to grant him a visa because of his articles seen as “negative”. He has written several articles for Slovenian newspapers and posted on his website, www.tomokriznar.com, on the situation in Darfur. Kriznar was finally given a presidential amnesty on 2 September after negotiations.
A few weeks after the arrest of the Slovenian journalist, on 6 August, an American journalist, Paul Salopek, who was reporting on the Sahel region for the US monthly National Geographic, was arrested by government security forces along with two assistants. He was in possession of two US passports, a common practice for journalists covering conflict areas, and satellite photos of the region which are available on the Internet. He was charged with “spying” and “illegally disseminating information” as well as entering Sudanese territory without a visa. Salopek, who is also correspondent for the daily Chicago Tribune, his interpreter Suleiman Abakar Moussa and driver Idriss Abdulraman Anu, both Chadian nationals, were only released, on 9 September, thanks to the persistent intervention of New Mexico state governor, Bill Richardson.
The mistake these two journalists made was above all to have arrived, despite administrative and political obstacles, to cover news that the Sudanese government wanted to keep hidden. There have been a number of incidents of intimidation and barely-veiled threats directed against foreign reporters in Darfur and Khartoum.
Sudanese journalists are easy prey for the government. More than 15 of them were arrested during 2006, despite the official lifting of censorship and a state of emergency, in July 2005. One of them was even murdered, traumatising the whole profession, which was already living in fear of government crackdowns. The decapitated body of Mohamed Taha, editor of the privately-owned Sudanese daily al-Wifaq, was found by police in a street in Khartoum’s southern suburbs on 6 September after several masked men had snatched him from his home in the east of the capital the evening before. His family called police to report the abduction immediately after he was bundled into a car and driven away to an unknown destination.
Mohamed Taha had been tried for “blasphemy” in 2005 after a law suit was brought by a fundamentalist group, Ansar al-Sunnah. The offending article, written by the journalist, himself a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, referred to a more than five-century old Islamic manuscript which apparently cast doubt on the prophet’s genealogy. After the articles appeared, imams in Khartoum organised major demonstrations to demand that the journalist be killed. His paper was suspended for two months.
Suspicions immediately fell on Islamist radicals, but also on rebels in Darfur, for whom Mohamed Tama was one of their openly-stated enemies. Abu Obeida Abdallah, a journalist on the privately-owned al-Rai al-Aam, was held in custody from 29 September to 15 October, officially in connection with the investigation into Taha’s murder. He had covered the Abuja summit in May between the government and rebel groups in Darfur. Nothing filtered out about his interrogation. At the end of the year, Sudanese investigators had not reached any satisfactory conclusion about the murder.