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Sudan11 February 2009

“They asked me why I was asking about arms. Then they said they wanted me to leave the country”: the story of a Canadian-egyptian journalist expelled by the authorities

Canadian-Egyptian journalist Heba Aly, who worked in Khartoum for several international media from June 2008 was expelled by Sudanese authorities on 2 February 2009. One week after her removal, the latest incident in a long series, she spoke to Reporters Without Borders about her period in Sudan and about her untimely departure.

“The administrative harassment dealt out to this journalist during the six months she was in Sudan reminds us, if ever it was needed, that obtaining official accreditation in this country amounts to a veritable assault course and that practising journalism there is particularly difficult. Her expulsion is revealing about the government’s desire to strictly control news and the media. We urge the Sudanese authorities to stop using these absurd and pointless procedures”, said Jean-François Julliard, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders.

In a report released in April 2007, after an on-the-spot investigation entitled “Darfur: investigation into a tragedy’s forgotten actors”, the organisation condemned “blacklisting” by the Sudanese authorities of media or individual journalists and described in detail the numerous administrative obstacles put in place by the government to ensure its permanent stranglehold on the foreign press.

Setting up in Sudan and administrative obstructions

I arrived in Sudan on 23 June 2008, with my Canadian passport and a tourism visa issued by the Sudanese embassy in Ottawa. I was visiting the country as a journalist for a month and a half.

Upon arrival, I went to the Ministry of Information’s Foreign Journalists’ Department. The department issued me with a press card lasting one month, allowing me to conduct interviews, record sound and take pictures. I then decided I wanted to stay in Sudan more permanently. For that I was told I would have to make a request to open a correspondent’s office at the National Press and Publications Council (NPPC), then go to the foreign journalists’ department. Then I would take a letter to the Immigration Ministry to get a residency permit and finally I would take that permit to the Labour Ministry to get a work permit. This was my understanding.

I therefore wrote to the National Press Council giving a list of news agencies I worked with, copies of signed agreements and my contact information.

Since then, I have constantly asked for official accreditation but without success. At the start of January the Foreign Journalists’ Department refused to give me a new press card, saying that it would have to wait until my work permit was ready.

I then asked someone I trusted in the government. He said my name had come up in meetings at the ministry of information a few times. He said there was no problem with my papers and he didn’t understand why they weren’t processing the permit.

Journey to Darfur and searches at airports

At the end of September I travelled to Darfur on a government-issued travel permit. I obtained further permission from national security to travel outside the state capital, El-Fasher, and travelled to various areas that had recently been bombed by government forces after clashes with rebels. I photographed craters in the ground where bombs had fallen, military gunship helicopters flying over towns and a house that had been burned to the ground.

In early October, when I went to the airport to leave Darfur, I was detained for two hours by security officials. They searched all my things - my laptop, recorders, camera, notebooks, phones etc). I was physically body-searched as well. They deleted all the pictures from my camera (which luckily were backed up on my computer) before letting me return to Khartoum. I got calls after that from one of the national security officers who had searched my things “just saying hi” - a gentle reminder they were still watching me.

Later, on 2 December when I arrived at the airport in Khartoum to fly to Canada, I heard my name being called by a man who had clearly been waiting for me to arrive. He asked me to follow him to a back room where a colleague was waiting. He asked for my passport. I handed him the Egyptian one I was flying with. They looked at it and looked at each other and said “maybe it’s not her”. Then they asked me if I had another passport so I handed them the Canadian one. They seemed relieved like they had gotten the right person after all. Again, all my things were searched.

They then tried to justify stopping me with all kinds of reasons (registering my passport, no work permit, ensuring I was doing good work, routine procedure). They had me enter my password to access everything, professional and personal. I heard them listening to interviews that I had conducted and discussing pictures I had taken in Darfur. They copied files from my laptop onto a USB memory stick.

“Go to Egypt, go to Canada, we don’t care. Just leave"

Back in Sudan, one day in January I came across the website The Military Industry Corporation (, which referred to a Sudanese corporation that produces arms. I thought it would make an interesting story, given Sudan used to import large quantities of its arms and was now self-sufficient. In fact, I was later told that Sudan is the second largest arms-manufacturer in Sub-Saharan Africa, after South Africa.

I called the company and we set up a meeting for Thursday 29 January. Once I arrived they told me they were not interested in disclosing any more information than what was on their website. I tried to push them a little - I asked them about production and how much of a budget they had to work with. Their answers were vague.

Two days later, on Saturday 31 January I received a call at 9.30am from someone identifying himself as Mohamed Salem from national security. He said: “When we stopped you in December at the airport, we told you that we wanted to ensure you were doing good work. Now you come back and ask about the arms industry? We want to meet with you now”.

An hour later I met the two of the same men who had detained me at the Khartoum airport in December. They asked me why I was asking about arms. I told them that if it was an issue I would drop the story. They said they wanted me to leave the country.

I explained that I was trying to do good, balanced work in Sudan and that I was trying to show a different side of the country to the outside world. They said they had no problem with my work; if they did they would have arrested me earlier. But asking about arms was unacceptable. They said: “Go to Egypt, go to Canada, we don’t care. Just leave”.

They asked for my passports. I tried to convince them otherwise. They said: “You give us your passports or we will take you straight to the airport now”. They insisted on driving me home to pick them up. I didn’t give them directions to my home, but they knew exactly where it was. They never showed me a badge and I was later told by someone in government that national security did not employ anybody by the name of Mohamed Salem.

Last hours in Khartoum

We agreed I would leave three daus later, on Tuesday. The same day, I went to see someone I knew in government and he advised me that if was better for my own security to leave. He said if I wasn’t gone within a few days, they would arrest me. Then I went to the Canadian embassy to report what had happened and that I was no longer in possession of my passports.

Later that night, Mohamed Salem called again with a notably more aggressive tone. He asked why I had “run off” to my embassy and without my saying so, he also knew that I had gone to see the government official. He told me I had to leave Sudan on Monday. I asked for something in writing explaining that I was being asked to leave and the reason why. He said they would be telling my embassy that I had to leave because I didn’t have a work permit. .

On Monday evening, the consul accompanied me to the airport and witnessed them returning my passports to me. I again asked them for a written expulsion order but they refused. They said they would give their message to the Sudanese Foreign Affairs Ministry, which would communicate with the Canadian embassy or the Canadian Foreign Affairs Ministry.

After the immigration checkpoint, a national security official followed me all the way through the airport. He sat next to me for an hour and a half in the departure lounge before following me onto the airport shuttle bus. Then he watched me from the tarmac as I boarded the plane.

The next day, safely in Egypt with my family, my Sudanese phone rang. It was Mohamed Salem. I didn’t answer.

Heba Aly is a graduate of Carleton University in Ottawa. She works as a freelance for Bloomberg News, the UN humanitarian news service (IRIN), and US daily The Christian Science Monitor.

Heba Aly

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