The killing of two university students in Omdurman has triggered some of the largest student-driven protests in Sudan in recent memory. Protestors from at least nine campuses have demonstrated against the targeting of students critical of the ruling party.
In the capital of Khartoum, however, the daily Al-Ahram Al-Youm will tell you universities are now stable, despite the University of Khartoum closing its doors due to ongoing protests and arrests. Other leading papers such as Akbar Al-Youm and Al-Ray Al-Aam blame the violence on opposition forces despite evidence, including eyewitness accounts, suggesting otherwise.
While the world celebrated World Press Freedom Day this week, Sudan’s security agency, the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), is busy censoring the press. The agency ordered papers not to publish reports on the student killings, according to local press watchdog, the Journalists’ Association for Human Rights.
It is the latest example in a long list of untold stories, or flat-out misleading ones, in Sudan. In the last two months, authorities confiscated print-runs, intimidated journalists and blocked press-related meetings. Since authorities keep tight control over broadcasters through strict broadcast licensing procedures, the government keeps a stern watch over printed publications based in the capital, Khartoum, leaving little room for independent reporting.
Truth is always the first casualty of war. This maxim is especially acute in reference to Sudan’s press coverage of the conflicts within its own borders.
In late March, Khartoum’s press reported the government’s rumoured military victory in Um Serdiba, South Kordofan State. To celebrate, South Kordofan State Governor Major General Eissa Adam even organized a march April 1 in the government-controlled capital, Kadugli. But sources on the ground claim the rebels repelled the government troops from the town. The town is now deserted from the fighting, but not in government hands. Online photos shared by the army to convey their purported control of Um Serdiba were taken in another location…and four years ago.
Several editorial sources also told Nuba Reports that the NISS has a direct What’s App communication line with chief editors, directing them on what or what not to publish. On May 4, for instance, several editors in Khartoum were informed not to report on repeated power cuts affecting Khartoum, the same sources said.
State intimidation of the press ensures mistruths are printed daily. Since March, security agents seized print runs of six separate newspapers in Khartoum without providing a reason. The papers included: Al-Sudani, Al-Ayam, Al-Mustaqilla, Akhir Lahza, Al-Taghyeer and Al-Saiha. The last three newspapers had two print-runs confiscated.
The confiscation of print runs is not a new tactic in Sudan, nor is this year necessarily the worst. In February of last year, NISS seized the entire print runs of 14 newspapers in one day without stating the reason for its decision.
Papers are routinely confiscated to prevent circulation of certain stories or to punish them retroactively on previous issues. Although rarely made public, security forces block print runs on “red line” issues that often touch on areas sensitive to the government such as corruption, security issues and the president’s arrest warrant under the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Local journalists suspect the April 12 confiscation of Al-Taghyeer, for instance, was linked to an article written by civil society activist Amin Mekki Medani concerning the ICC. The March 27 seizure of Al-Ayam is potentially linked to Chief Editor Mahgoub Mohamed Salih’s criticism of the March AU-brokered peace deal with rebel groups in the Nuba Mountains and Darfur.
The blocked print-run practice not only denies the public access to information, it also cripples the publication economically. After security forces raided Al-Sudani newspaper and confiscated 20,000 copies the media house incurred a loss of US$5,800. Newspaper owners in Khartoum are investors who care more for profit than press freedoms, explains Sudanese journalist and press freedom advocate Abdelgadir Mohammed.
“So if a newspaper passes the red line, it is confiscated,” Mohammed told Nuba Reports. “No newspaper is owned by a journalist who would be willing to exceed the red lines; owners never jeopardize this.”
Sometimes security agents use more preventive measures to silence the press. They block crucial advertising revenue, the “bloodline of newspapers,” Mohammed says, NISS controls advertising agencies and can by controlling ad agencies. And when certain reporters dig too deep, NISS simply informs their employers to remove them.
In the same week of World Press Freedom Day, three newspapers sacked five of their reporters for unclear reasons.
“I’ve been working at my newspaper for almost ten years and it was my first job,” one recently fired editor told Nuba Reports, on condition of anonymity. “I’ve faced harassment and intimidation from the administration as well as the security agencies, but this exceeded the limit.”
After exposing illegal pollutant dumping practices by an industry last September, the editor faced pressure from both security and the newspaper’s administration. Professional, critical journalism is never rewarded in Khartoum – in fact, it can leave a journalist penniless.
“I think I will probably not have an opportunity to work in the print media again,” the editor said. “I have met with editors at other newspapers, but if they confirm that the decision to sack me is from the NISS and not the newspaper, I will not be hired.”
Despite Sudan’s constitution protecting press freedom, authorities utilize subordinate laws such as the National Security Forces Act of 2010 to instigate legal proceedings against newspapers and journalists. Human rights groups have called on Sudan to amend this law and a host of other anti-press laws including: the Press and Printed Materials Act 2009, the Voluntary and Humanitarian Work Act 2006 and Criminal Act 1991 for Sudan’s Universal Periodic Review this year.
There are still some small reasons to celebrate World Press Freedom Day in the capital. Sudan’s highest court recently allowed Al-Tayyar newspaper to renew publishing after security agents shuttered the publication in December. NISS agents had suspended the paper for a series of editorials criticizing the government over subsidy cuts on fuel and electricity. This media victory did not, however, come easily. Authorities detained Al-Tayyar’s chief editor Osman Mirghani overnight after suspending the publication. The staff even went on a three-day hunger strike in order to get authorities to refer the closure of the newspaper to Sudan’s constitutional court.
Khartoum’s control over the public narrative is also gradually waning. More and more Sudanese are evading the propaganda by going online, Mohammed said. The press freedom advocate did a survey last week indicating that over 70 percent of Sudanese in Khartoum use their mobile phones to access online media. A quarter of Sudanese are now active online, according to the International Telecommunications Union, a remarkable shift from only .03 percent at the turn of the century.
What is not published in print is steadily more available online since online platforms offer a certain level of discretion for reporting and dissemination that print cannot provide. This is not to say NISS do not censor the online press, only that it is much more challenging to do so. Sudan uses advanced spyware and imported remote control systems under their “cyber jihadist unit” to filter web content, censor online communication and spy on their perceived opponents.
Sudan’s poor press freedom record is longstanding. Just as in previous years, Sudan is ranked 174 out of 180 countries by the media watchdog Reporters without Borders’ global index on press freedom. But Sudan’s young, increasingly tech-driven population may counter this ignoble figure by reporting a more objective narrative.