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By Yassir Karooka
When anti-government protests erupted in Sudan last September, the government responded with brutal crackdowns on demonstrators and local and international media representatives covering the protests. The offices of Saudi-owned TV station Al-Arabiya and Dubai-based Sky News Arabia were closed soon afterwards and staff members were questioned by Sudan’s national security agency.
As demonstrations intensified, the government imposed a media blackout, even suspending internet service for the entire country. But such actions are not uncharacteristic of Omar al-Bashir’s regime, which has for two decades systematically suppressed freedom of expression and cracked down on independent media groups.
Sudan has hardly ever fostered a climate that supports freedom of the press. But in recent months, media teams working in Sudan have complained of intensified censorship, harassment and an active campaign by the government to suppress coverage, which as a byproduct is threatening journalists’ livelihoods.
The Atlantic Post spoke with a veteran Sudanese news producer who has worked with local and international TV stations, including Al- Arabiya and Al-Hurra. The source, who requested anonymity, citing security concerns, told The Atlantic Post that the Sudanese regime is acting cautiously after having seen Egyptian, Tunisian and Libyan governments struggle during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
“The security agencies in Sudan are now determined to prevent the media and especially independent social media from playing the same role they played in these countries,” the source said.
The al-Bashir regime’s fear of social media explains why the government imposed an internet blackout last September, despite the negative impact it would have on commercial operations and bureaucracy, which are also integral to smooth government performance.
In Sudan, independent media is viewed as a “national threat,” said the source. The establishment of a well-equipped media oversight department as part of the notorious Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Services also illustrates the regime’s dedication to suppressing media efforts and freedom of expression. Ali Ahmed Karti, Sudan’s Foreign Minister, told Al-Arabiya TV in September that “ media make revolutions. If revolution is made by media, we have to be serious in dealing with it.”
The unnamed source and his staff have been called in for questioning by National Intelligence and Security Services staff on several occasions. They have also had some of their equipment confiscated, which has resulted in significant financial losses.
Print news has also fallen victim to the Sudanese government’s systemic censorship and harassment. Many editors and journalists say censorship is so heavy-handed that security officials will even insist on approving each news headline before it goes to print. Pre-publication censorship has long been imposed by Sudan’s security agencies, though the degree of censorship has been known to fluctuate depending on politics or security in the country.
After the latest round of demonstrations, the government shuttered one of the country’s largest circulating daily newspapers. Many dailies have been shut down over the past two years. Others have been prohibited from delivering news even after papers have been published and readied for distribution.
Banning newspapers from making distributions after the printing process has been a frequent practice by the National Intelligence and Security Services, with the partial goal of draining the independent press’s finances. This has been especially difficult for the already-suffering print news industry, and has proved especially effective in crippling the operation of dailies. Many lack their own printing resources and must negotiate expensive contracts with print houses that are wary of being associated with controversial politics.
Operating under immense financial strain, many dailies are now refusing to pay the salaries of journalists that the National Intelligence and Security Services have banned from writing.
The Sudanese Journalists Association for Human Rights has heavily criticized this decision, citing concern for the livelihood of journalists and the suffering quality of journalism under an atmosphere of intimidation. Such an attitude, the unnamed source added, promotes self-censorship and bias on the part of journalists who above all must provide for a suitable living.
Arguably the biggest challenge facing Sudanese media groups today is arrest and detention by government security forces. The detention of journalists Burham Abdel-Mouneim and Dahlia El Roubi during Sudan’s last major protests was covered by international press agencies. The coverage likely helped secure their release, but many more journalists have been detained, and in most cases the media does not cover their stories.
Collective efforts by journalists and other media workers to respond to the Sudanese government’s hostility have not had especially productive effects. Some media associations have previously attempted to stage protests in front of the country’s courts, demanding their constitutional right to freedom of expression be respected. The regime’s security agencies, however, have been quick to disperse such gatherings, according to the unnamed source.
Some individual journalists, however, have been relatively successful in resisting government repression efforts by seeking international media coverage of the situation. Others have contacted international rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the New York-based International Committee to Protect Journalists.
The suppression of independent media is one of the methods by which the Sudanese regime maintains control over its population and mitigates criticism of its government. While it is capable of completely wiping out independent press groups, said the unnamed source, the regime will likely avoid doing so out of the fear that this could make the government seem even more oppressive to an international audience.
Nonetheless, crackdowns like those that occurred last September are testing the regime’s ability to strike a balance of putting down protests and reducing international criticism. While the tide may eventually turn in favor of Sudanese journalists, they are still caught up in a system where their work and livelihoods continue to suffer.
Yassir Karooka is an Atlantic Post contributor based in Cordoba, Argentina.