The Sudanese press appearing in Khartoum was once again in 2007 a regular target for the security services who will not allow journalists to get in the way of government action. Several arrests and a generally bad atmosphere do not however detract from the fact that newspapers and civil society play an active part in ongoing debates, including on the crisis in Darfur.
With around 30 independent daily papers across the range of political tendencies, and an active and critical civil society, Sudan is a paradox. Its poor reputation on the international scene, mainly because of its intransigence and complicity in the killings in Darfur, has tended to mask the robustness of the media in Khartoum.
As in many armed conflicts worldwide, the crisis in Darfur sets both the national and international media complex difficulties in trying to cover it effectively. The intrinsic problems - the multiplicity of armed factions, absence of a “front line” and the lack of distinction between combatants and civilians, the inhospitable terrain and so on - are exacerbated by a “bureaucratic corral” thrown up round it by the authorities in Khartoum in a bid to “regulate” the work of journalists. A whole raft of administrative and security obstacles hamper everything from obtaining a visa, to getting a special “travel permit” for Darfur, and also ban access to camps for the internally displaced. Reporters Without Borders, following an on-the-spot investigation, released a report on the difficult situation faced by Sudanese and foreigners journalists, highlighting these obstacles but also the pluralism, robustness and rigour of the newspapers in the capital.
The Sudanese written press, which boasts a genuine pluralism, reflects the voices of Sudanese human rights activists, university researchers and community life in general - voices which struggle to get a hearing outside of Sudan. This no easy thing to do ; in a country which is so divided and in which so much is at stake. Faisal el-Bagir, of the privately-owned weekly al-Midan and correspondent in Sudan for Reporters Without Borders, along with Abdel Moneim Suleiman, al-Haj Warraq, al-Tahir Satti and Rabbah al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, all four of the privately-owned Arabic-language daily al-Sahafa, all received death threats on 4 December apparently in connection with their reports on Darfur. Abdel Moneim Suleiman said he received threats by telephone from Chad from man who told him that someone if Sudan had offered 222,000 dollars for him to kill all five journalists. The caller told him they were targets because of their opposition to the government and their support for the deployment of an international force in Darfur.
Newspapers in the firing line
The privately-owned daily al-Sudani, an independent publication which is highly critical of the Khartoum government has been a target for the authorities. After it carried allegations against the justice minister, officials went to the printers on 16 May and seized plates of the edition which was about to appear and handed the paper’s management a letter from the prosecutor’s office ordering its closure. A leader article written by the editor that day had accused the minister, Mohamed Ali al-Mardhi, of “lying in a money-laundering case” which had been brought before the courts. Both the publisher Mahgub Urwa and the editor Osman Mirghani were held in custody for two and three days respectively, from 17-20 May, before being released without charge.
The closure of al-Sudani typifies one of those most blatant obstacles to press freedom in Sudan. It was a step taken unilaterally by the government despite the fact that there is regulatory body for the press, which it completely by-passed. The government yet again used one of its favourite weapons, Article 130 of the criminal law, the validity of which is contested by the entire profession as well as the National Press Council, which regulates the media. This ambiguous piece of legislation designed to prevent “influence on ongoing legal proceedings”, had also been used against the paper on 1st February was when it was closed “indefinitely” by the justice ministry for referring to the 2006 murder of the editor of the daily al-Wifaq, Mohamed Taha, breaching a government-imposed blackout on the case on the pretext of “maintaining public order”. The government bowed to pressure from professional organisations and climbed down 48 hours later. Mahgub Urwa and Nureddin Medani, deputy editor of al-Sudani, were imprisoned in November, for 11 days, after being sentenced for “defamation” of the intelligence services on 18 November and refusing the pay a fine of 10,000 Sudanese pounds (3,500 Euros), “to get the government to understand the injustice of imprisonment for an expression of opinion” Mahgub Urwa said as he left prison.
Other newspapers have also found themselves at loggerheads with often bad-tempered authorities. Security services, using the old tactics of Sudan’s political police, raided the printers of al-Midan on 28 August and seized all 15,000 copies of the freshly-printed edition. No official reason was given for the raid. But Reporters Without Borders’ correspondent, Faisal el-Bagir, believed it could be linked to publication of articles condemning the seizure a week early of the privately-owned Arabic-language al-Raï al-Chaab. He that the seizures could also be intended to put the newspaper under financial pressure by depriving it of income. Six independent dailies had articles censored by the security services on 20-21 August about the arrest of people suspected of fomenting attacks against Western embassies.
Sudanese security services have no hesitation in arresting journalists who might witness abuse. Alfatih Abdullah, of al-Sudani, Qazafi Abdulmotalab, of al-Ayam, Abuobaida Awad, of Rai-Alshaab, and Abulgasim Farahna, of Alwan, spent a week in custody after they were arrested on 13 June, while they were on their way to cover a demonstration against the construction of a dam at Kijbar, in the Dongola region in the north of the country, during which police opened fire, leaving four dead and at least ten wounded.