Censorship is useless because it is powerless against reality. What is the point of raids by security agencies on printing presses and newspaper offices? Suppressing reports does not change what you are trying to cover up. A problem is not solved by being masked. Keeping journalists under surveillance, threatening editors and closing newspapers just show the government’s repressive side, expose its weaknesses and create enemies. This is the message that Reporters Without Borders would like to convey to the Sudanese authorities.
When we visited Khartoum and El-Fasher in March 2007, we were impressed by the vitality of the Khartoum-based press and the hopes that had been raised by the 2005 peace accord. In a published report entitled “An investigation into a tragedy’s forgotten actors,” we stressed how “active and diverse” Sudan’s media and civil society were, and we condemned the western media’s failure to reflect this important aspect of contemporary Sudan.
But current developments are giving us the lie. Khartoum’s privately-owned media are beginning to suffocate and yield to fault-finding security agents who have no place in newspaper offices or their printing presses. Raids and confiscation of issues have been followed by closures or coercive measures by state agencies. All this keeps sabotaging newspapers, forcing them to live in fear and depriving them of significant resources.
The journalists themselves can no longer bear this straightjacket, the way they are mistrusted and treated like children by their own government. As if they were responsible for the problems which Sudan is experiencing and which they report to the Sudanese. As if by punishing and harassing them, the government could change any aspect of this reality. It is the readers, not the security agencies, who can best judge and punish a newspaper. All they have to do is stop buying it.
The absurd attempt to suppress the reality reported by the Khartoum media resumed on 6 February 2008. It was then that the government secretly decided to restore censorship, an archaic procedure whose disappearance in 2005 was hailed by the entire world. The security agencies began their repressive work on 10 February, eliminating an article from Al-Sahafa. In the days that followed, they prevented Al-Rai al-Shaab from publishing, they interrogated the editors of Al-Ahdaht and Al-Watan at length, they interrogated the editors of Al-Wifaq, Al-Midan, Al-Sudani and Al-Rai al-Aam, and they made nightly visits to Al-Midan’s printing press to have articles removed... The list of incidents has not let up since then.
In an attempt to get the country’s rulers to see reason, the staff of Ajras al-Hurriya, Al-Maidan and Al-Rai al-Shaab protested 4 November, few days after an Al-Intibaha journalist was arrested for an article that clearly displeased the authorities.
Are the Sudanese any less worried? Is Sudan in less of a crisis? No, the censorship has obviously not helped. The news, if it is true, exists regardless of the newspapers and circulates all the same. That is why Reporters Without Borders urges the Sudanese authorities to lift these absurd and unconstitutional measures that occupy state employees to no purpose and pointlessly punish educated and responsible citizens, both journalists and readers.
In the end, censorship renders a greater service to those who thrive in the breeding-ground of rumour and false hope of freedom than to responsible Sudanese who are proud of being able to criticise and of being criticised, proud of being able to face reality with their eyes open. Censorship is pointless, absurd and dangerous. It is time to consign it to a troubled past.
By Jean-François Julliard and Léonard Vincent of Reporters Without Borders. Jean-François Julliard is Reporters Without Borders secretary-general. Léonard Vincent is the Paris-based organisation’s head of information.