Human rights groups are expressing concern about what they call the lack of media freedom in Sudan. In signing a peace deal with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement two years ago, President Omar al-Bashir pledged to grant freedom of expression. But journalists operating in Sudan say there’s no evidence of such reform in the media sector. They say the Khartoum government continues to maintain a tight grip on radio, television and newspapers, and reporters are often arrested, imprisoned, beaten and tortured merely for doing their jobs. In the first part of a series on media in Sudan, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports on the climate there for journalists.
“There are moves towards greater freedom of expression by authorities in both the South and the North. But it only came as a result of the negotiations that brought about peace. And that peace seems to be under threat now, despite recent reconciliation attempts. So it’s a very worrying time. I am not very hopeful,” says Elmigdad Gebril, a veteran Northern Sudanese international broadcaster and news editor at Radio Sawa, a United States government funded Arabic radio station that broadcasts in Khartoum.
“The press in the Sudan is very reflective of the political situation itself. It’s not democratic in any way. It does not provide the people with the necessary information; it only reflects the government point of view. And when it doesn’t do this, it becomes a target of government and political parties,” Gebril states.
During his recent visit to the United States, Salva Kiir, Sudan’s first vice president and leader of the government of Southern Sudan, complained that President al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) was refusing to relax its stranglehold on newspapers, television and radio stations.
“Whatever is said there (in the media), it is for the NCP,” he said.
Sudanese government spokesman Seif Yasin responds that “none of the 27 newspapers” operating in Sudan is owned by the state.
“All the newspapers are privately owned. Eight radio stations are privately owned. The political parties don’t own any newspapers in Sudan. Really, the publications are very critical of the government,” says Yasin.
Experienced Sudanese journalist John Tanza, who works for a network of radio stations that broadcasts from Kenya into Southern Sudan, disagrees.
“Hardly anything appears in the media in the North that is critical of the rulers,” he says.
“It’s true that there are some independent, privately owned radio stations in the North, but they’re sort of commercial and very close to the government,” says Dave Peterson, who’s been traveling to Sudan to investigate media development on behalf of Washington’s National Endowment for Democracy.
“They’re not particularly assertive when it comes to talking about political issues,” he adds.
Tanza says the people who manage media outlets in Northern Sudan are all linked to the government.
“Either they are supporters, or they are at least on friendly terms with al-Bashir.”
Media freedom groups report that Sudanese journalists who dare to be critical of the ruling party or state officials are regularly assaulted, detained, jailed for long periods and tortured.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders highlighted the recent detentions of two independent Sudanese journalists, Mahjoub Ourwa and Noureddine Madani, after they condemned the brutal arrests of four other reporters by National Intelligence Service officers in Khartoum.
Yasin responds: “We have a lot of work to do, I admit that. And part of that work is to educate our police about the role of the media, and the fact that journalists have rights and cannot simply be locked up when they are only doing their jobs, like covering some sort of event. The police sometimes act without thinking, because of their will to protect…. servants of the government.”
But, in the absence of a Freedom of Information Act, there are instead a slew of laws in Sudan that restrict the media’s access to information and have been formulated so as to prevent journalists from reporting on the activities of government officials - under the guise of “protection of state security.”
“Sudan is a country where information is kept very tight, in terms of the Western sense of investigative journalism. The tradition is silence,” says Dan McCarey of the International Center for Journalists in Washington.
“No media in Sudan is operating as a successful business at the moment. The Press Council and the police still make nightly visits to newspapers in Khartoum. No newspaper owns its own press, or has access to an independent press in Sudan – the presses are government-owned, and distribution of newspapers is tightly controlled.”
Tanza says the Press Council is a group of government officials whose job it is “to decide what the public gets to see and hear. They often summon editors to meetings when they’re not happy with what has been published.”
He adds that before newspapers hit the streets in Khartoum, their contents have to be vetted by intelligence agents.
“The dummies are submitted to the Sudan security organ. Before the paper goes to bed you have to submit a dummy to them. They look at it. Then they tell you, ‘This story – forget about it.’”
Yasin acknowledges that this “sometimes” happens – again, “in the interests of state security.”
“There’s no government in the world that allows the media just to publish what it wants,” he says.
“Journalists sometimes threaten national security. Even in America, journalists don’t get access to certain classified information – because if such information is broadcast, it will fall into the hands of the enemies of the state, and be used against the people of America. It is the same situation in Sudan.”
Tanza says Yasin’s being “disingenuous.”
The journalist says he and his colleagues should “obviously expect retribution” if they disclose information about an imminent attack by Sudanese security forces on a criminal hideout, for example.
Yet Sudanese reporters are arrested and detained for trying to report on dam construction and for taking photographs in Khartoum streets.
“They use this ‘state secrets’ thing most of the time to cover up their actions; it’s just an excuse,” Tanza maintains.
Yasin is adamant that “improvements are being made” to ensure that there’s greater freedom of expression in his country.
“We have eased restrictions that now makes it easy for anyone to obtain a license to broadcast in Sudan,” he says.
Again, Tanza disagrees.
“I have applied to broadcast in the North and they didn’t give us a license, for reasons that were not explained to us. And United Nations Radio tried to get permission to broadcast all over Sudan, but they were denied frequencies to operate in the North.”
According to Tanza, there are “many examples” of people wanting to establish radio stations in Northern Sudan.
“There was a group of businessmen recently who put up serious money for a station in Khartoum. The government said ‘Yes, you can open – but then you can only broadcast music; no news.’ And then they got discouraged.”
Others who’ve investigated the option of opening newspapers and radio stations in Northern Sudan say the government uses “delaying tactics” to prevent free media from operating in Khartoum.
“The trick here is (that) the state wants to discourage you without having to issue a direct refusal. So they’ll tell you, ‘Yes, we have no problems; bring your papers.’ But they will delay you for months and months and months and they will have all sorts of excuses about why the papers aren’t being processed. So by the time you are ready (to begin broadcasts or publication), then either you have exhausted all your capital, or you’re no longer interested in the venture,” one potential investor told VOA.
“It’s very difficult to obtain a license without some connections to the government,” says Jeremy Groce, the manager of Sudan Radio Services, which broadcasts in Southern Sudan.
“(The authorities) want to make sure that you’re not going to do anything dangerous, so…some of these stations – generally [they broadcast] music and entertainment and some very light current events programming – certainly nobody doing any hard news or anything the government feels they’d have to worry about.”
Joan Mower, of the US State Department’s Sudan Programs Group, says credible media are especially essential for a country such as Sudan, emerging as it is from decades of civil war and continuing to be plagued by conflict in Darfur.
“The people of Sudan need to have access to unbiased news and information for a number of reasons,” she says.
“There are elections coming up in 2009. The US wants to see a Sudan that’s peaceful, democratic and united. Sudanese need to have information about the election issues and about the candidates, and it needs to be fair information.”
Sudan is certainly on the cusp of momentous events in its history, such as the elections and a referendum in 2011 during which Southern Sudanese are expected to vote for or against secession from the North. Yet, observers say, without free media, there’s little chance of the public being adequately educated about political and social events to enable them to make informed choices about their future.