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Rights Group Accuses Sudan of Press Crackdown

Human Rights Watch says the Sudanese government is blatantly intimidating the independent press in Sudan, in particular journalists who are trying to cover the war in Darfur.

A Human Rights Watch statement says the government in Khartoum has recently begun harassing journalists. "Since the beginning of 2006, at least 15 Sudanese and foreign journalists have been arrested and detained in Sudan by the Sudanese authorities," said Georgette Gagnon, deputy director of the African Division at the international rights group. "And, since September, the security forces have resumed the practice of pre-print inspection of newspapers, in an apparent effort to censor sensitive news. And, in some instances, editions of newspapers have been banned altogether," she added.

In recent months, local and international journalists have reported a wave of arrests, detentions and beatings in and around the capital Khartoum.

In early August, an American journalist, Paul Salopek, was arrested and charged with spying after entering Sudan's Darfur region without a visa. He was released in September following negotiations with the government. Also in September, a Sudanese editor was found beheaded after being abducted outside of his home in Khartoum.

Gagnon says there have been instances in which Sudanese authorities have warned newspaper editors not to cover violent police actions against anti-government demonstrations, which took place in Khartoum in August and September.

She says the crackdown is focused on news about problems with the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with former southern rebels, Khartoum's fear about its grip on power and protests over price increases on fuel, sugar and other basic goods.

As for covering the war in the western Darfur region, Human Rights Watch says Khartoum has systematically restricted journalists seeking access to the region, and has made it difficult for them to interview local Darfur residents and relief officials. "Our information is that it is very difficult, not only for local media, but for international media, to actually get the permit from the government that allows you to travel into Darfur. Our information is that the Sudanese government is gearing up for a new military offensive along the border with Chad," he said.

Gagnon says non-governmental organizations, relief groups, and journalists working inside Sudan are also reporting evidence of an orchestrated crackdown to restrict access to information about the war. And, she adds, it is particularly ominous, because there is almost no freedom of expression in Darfur. "Any information that gets out about human-rights abuses is generally done through the United Nations reporting from the area, or through several local non-governmental organizations that are still operating there, in spite of all the restrictions on their activities," he said.

Gagnon says that when Human Rights Watch has raised similar concerns with Khartoum in the past, they have been dismissed.