Sudan is the largest and one of the most geographically diverse countries in Africa. The country has been beset by conflict. Two rounds of north-south civil war cost the lives of 1.5 million people, and a continuing conflict in the western region of Darfur has driven two million people from their homes and killed more than 200,000. Moreover, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for the Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The charges relate to the conflict in the western Darfur. And now, the country may split after the south’s vote in the January 2011 referendum to separate and form the continent’s newest state.
The Sudanese media/news agencies have reported on Sudan’s ongoing corruption and civil tension for decades but have always been highly restricted and censored. Most state-run radio, TV and newspaper agencies reflect government policy and are not privately owned but government-owned. There are a few news agencies that are owned by both the government and private investors. A military censor ensures that news reflects official views. International broadcasters are also heard but in August 2010, the Sudanese government has announced it is suspending the BBC’s license to broadcast in Arabic on local FM frequencies in four northern cities, including the capital, Khartoum. Security personnel also informed editors in recent days that journalists who had not completed an extensive government questionnaire would be detained. The private press enjoys a greater degree of freedom than the state broadcasters and offers a limited forum for opposition views, but the state retains and uses powers to influence what is published. Pre-publication censorship of newspapers by the intelligence services was lifted in 2009 after editors signed the “ethical code.” But after President Bashir was re-elected in April 2010, opposition and privately owned papers said screening returned. According to web filtering monitoring body OpenNet Initiative (ONI), “Sudan openly acknowledges filtering content that transgresses public morality and ethics or threatens order.” Blogging is “subject to scrutiny and can incur serious consequences.”
In 2009, Sudan’s National Assembly unanimously approved the Press and Publication Act, also referred to as the Journalism and Press Publications Bill 2009, which guarantees freedom of the press that triggered protests in Khartoum but fails to abolish censorship and allay the fears of many Sudanese journalists. The Act provides for the formation of a national press council, based in Khartoum, to be subordinate to the presidency. The president has the power to choose six of the council’s 21 members; his role, and the council’s licensing powers, lead some journalists to view the council as still being too powerful under the new law. It will have the authority “to suspend a newspaper for up to three days without the involvement of a law court and will also license press companies and lay conditions for the registration of journalists, distributors and printers. Journalists said they were pleased legislators had removed a section from earlier drafts that would have allowed a powerful press council to fine journalists or newspapers up to 50,000 Sudanese Pounds ($21,000). In the final version, law courts decide penalties and can choose how long to suspend newspapers. But the new press bill leaves room for state interference on the grounds of national security or public order, and it remains unclear if censorship will be reduced. Newspapers have long complained that officials from Sudan’s national security apparatus have censored articles, seized print runs, shut down newspapers for weeks at a time and interfered with the transport of papers out of Khartoum.
In 2010, Khartoum’s prosecutor-general charged a Sudanese opposition journalist, Abu Zar al-Amin, for terrorism and espionage and allegedly tortured him while in custody. He’s charged for “undermining the constitution,” “terrorism and espionage,” “publishing false news,” “undermining the prestige of the State,” and “inciting sedition.” The deputy editor of the daily, Rai al-Shaab, Al-Amin was arrested with three of his colleagues when security forces closed down the daily because of an article alleging that Iran had built a weapons factory in Sudan to supply insurgents in Africa and the Middle East. If convicted, al-Amin faces the death penalty.
Faisal Elbagir is another Sudanese journalist who has been detained and interrogated for his work. But the last time it happened, he decided to flee, leaving his wife and daughter behind, fearing his life is in danger. “The day before I left Sudan, I was questioned and told I was an ‘enemy’. The message was very clear: they were either going to put me in prison on false charges, by saying I was passing information to the ICC, or they were going to assassinate me,” said Elbagir. “After the arrest warrant, the head of security announced that those supporting the ICC would not be allowed to live, that they were ‘betraying the nation’. He said he would cut their hands and cut their ears.”
Journalists in Sudan like al-Amin and Elbagir face being charged for insult, espionage or sedition. Unlike in the United States, if found guilty of such crimes you’ll get imprisoned for sometime but the death penalty for such crimes doesn’t exist anywhere in the US except New Mexico. In addition, other than excessive torture, another punishment for such crimes is amputation of hands and feet. Such punishments are recognized as violations of international human rights laws. However, the crimes al-Amin and Elbagir are crimes that journalists in the US are held accountable for but the punishment for the crime differs. Journalists in Sudan are prone to greater risks of censorship and restriction that in the US because the media laws in Sudan offers the president, his government and council lay conditions that restrict freedom of press in Sudan. As the law says, “[t]here shall not be imposition of restrictions on freedom of press publication except according to law in issues pertaining to safeguarding the national security and public order and health.” This allows the state continuous interference on grounds of national security or public order, making it unclear whether censorship will be reduced, especially since the country’s intelligence services will still be authorized, under the National Security Act, to censor newspapers before their publication. Whereas, the US’ media law restricts the government or any government official from intervening in news’ agencies publications or broadcasting. News agencies outside of Sudan are free to say whatever they choose about Sudan. Most of them are anti-regime, but if they come to Sudan, they’ll be at risk of danger. After the peace agreement in 2005, the government started to open up to criticism but to a certain limit. Therefore, Sudanese news agencies in Sudan are free to stay what they want but to a limit. The national security or police judges or assesses the limit. In that respect, some of the papers are shut down or journalists, reporters or editors could be arrested. That limit itself is unclear as mentioned earlier. Journalists can take pictures anywhere but some places are restricted such as government institutions or offices. Unlike in the US, you can tape record the person only with his consent because the disclosure of the information the person reveals is up to him. In the US, however, you can tape record whomever you want without their consent. That’s under the “one-party rule” but if there are more than two people involved as the “two-party rule” explains, you have to get their consent to be recorded. When seeking information that has to do with the government, the general auditor or the Bank of Sudan release these records.
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