As Sudan prepares for a much anticipated referendum on secession, the recent arrests and detention of journalists has provoked strong criticism from the international community and rights groups are worried about press freedom during the critical vote.  

Over the past week, press freedom in Sudan has come under scrutiny from the international community for what is being called "arbitrary" harassment of journalists by Sudanese intelligence forces.

On Wednesday, a member of the independent Alsahafa newspaper, Gafar Alsabki Ibrahim, was detained by authorities during an unexplained raid on the papers office.

On October 30th, intelligence officials conducted a similar raid on the offices of Radio Dabanga, which covers the ongoing conflict in Darfur. According to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, 13 people were arrested, including journalist Abdelrahman Adam.

According to the Africa head of Reporters Without Borders, Ambroise Pierre, both outlets were targeted for reporting on Darfur, a taboo subject for Khartoum.

"The situation in Sudan right now is that there is a repression on a couple of key issues: the next referendum, Darfur, the fact that the president is being prosecuted by an international court in The Hague," said Pierre. "These are issues that are controlled by Khartoum and censored in the media. That is why we are worried for the Sudanese journalists because the context will make it that they will be, more and more, under surveillance."

Sudan has long received scorn from rights groups for its relationship with the press. The country is ranked 172 out of 178 countries on Reporters Without Borders' 2010 press freedom index.

London-based Amnesty International has also criticized the National Security Act, which grants sweeping power to the intelligence service to sensor media and repress opposition.

Pierre told VOA the developments were especially troubling in light of Sudan's upcoming referendum.

"Particularly when a referendum is taking place like this, the population needs to be informed," he said. "You cannot be a citizen if you are not informed before. The repression of freedom of the press ahead of the referendum is making it impossible for the Sudanese population to act as citizens."

On January 9, South Sudan will hold a referendum to decide if it remains with the north or forms an independent nation. The south is widely expected to choose independence, but logistical setbacks and stalled negotiations over issues such as oil-sharing and border demarcation have northern officials pushing for a delay in the poll.

Many fear a delay could renew violence in the troubled region. The referendum is the final phase of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the civil war between the north and south in 2005.