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Sudanese intelligence services confiscate 10 newspapers

A man reads a newspaper during a sit-in organized by Sudanese opposition parties in Khartoum, 11 April 2015
A man reads a newspaper during a sit-in organized by Sudanese opposition parties in Khartoum, 11 April 2015

AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy

This statement was originally published on on 1 June 2015.

By: Abdelgadir Mohammed

Last Monday, Sudan's National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) confiscated the print-runs of 10 daily newspapers in the morning without giving any reason – an action that came against the backdrop of an ongoing brutal security campaign against the freedoms of speech and the press in a country that consistently tops international lists of states that breach those freedoms.

As if the confiscations were not enough of a blow, NISS went so far as to dictate the suspension of four of the newspapers indefinitely without providing any reason.

The 10 confiscated newspapers are: Al-Sudani, Al-Khartoum, Al-Jareeda, Al-Akhbar, AkhirLahzah, Al-Intibaha, Alwan, Al-Youm al-Tali, Al-Rai ala'am and Al-Tayyar. All of them are political dailies, some of them pro-government. Those suspended are Al-Intibaha, AkhirLahzah, Al-Jareeda and Al-Khartoum. Ironically, the editor-in-chief of Al-Intibaha is a senior member in the ruling party and the head of the government-controlled Sudanese Journalists' Union.

This mass confiscation of newspapers, which local journalists described as a “press massacre”, calls to mind a similar occurrence that took place earlier this year. On Feb. 16, NISS seized the print runs of 14 daily newspapers without offering any explanation.

Although the number of incidents of press freedom violations in Sudan is already high, these two episodes of mass confiscations stand out as the most egregious of these violations in Sudan's modern history. Art. 39 of Sudan's Interim Constitution protects freedom of press and publication; by conducting the worst attacks on freedom of press and speech at this time, NISS shows utter disregard for the Constitution's mandates. NISS answers directly to the presidency of the republic, which suggests that all of its gross violations are either being sanctioned or mandated by the president of Sudan.

NISS exerts absolute control over the contents of all newspapers in a variety of ways, and in doing so, it infringes upon the mandates of a plethora of government bodies tasked with monitoring and regulating the performance of newspapers. These include the National Council of Press and Publications, the Ministry of Media and the Ministry of Justice. If anything, this is an indication of the absolute hegemony of NISS over other state branches.

The systematic repression of press and speech freedoms in Sudan takes various forms. NISS exercises rigorous censorship, both before and after printing, on newspapers and other media outlets. NISS also disseminates messages to editors of newspapers instructing them not to discuss issues it deems to be beyond “red-lines” related to “national security”.

The number and breadth of these red-lined issues, however, has recently expanded to include a wide spectrum of political, legal, economic and social issues such as government corruption, human rights violations, the war in Darfur and the worsening of the economic situation. All of these are political, legal, and economic issues that have no relationship with “national security.” Nevertheless, NISS continues to widen the range of “red-lines” to include anything critical of government policies.

Usually, security authorities offer no explanation for why they confiscate newspapers. Following the second mass seizure on May 25, however, sources close to NISS leaked a handwritten document showing that the confiscations were ordered because newspapers published news reports on the “prevalence of sexual abuse and rape cases of schoolchildren by the drivers of school buses”.

This appears to be a smokescreen. The suspension of newspapers took place in the day that followed a press conference by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Ms. Rashida Manjoo, at the conclusion of her visit to Sudan. It is my contention that the confiscations were carried out to preclude coverage of Ms. Manjoo's preliminary report, in which she accused the state of violating the rights of women, presented examples of these violations and called for an independent investigation into cases of sexual violence.

Another severe effect of confiscation, besides being a gross violation of press freedom, is the huge financial damages it inflicts on already hard-pressed newspapers. Such measures indirectly force them to abide by the instructions of security authorities and the red-lines for financial reasons so as to avoid closure. The two consequences are equally bad.

Post-printing confiscations are usually carried out as a punitive measure against the newspapers that cross the red-lines or publish on issues that rile the government.

Since the beginning of this year, NISS has confiscated around 52 print runs of newspapers, a high figure indicating an increase in the cases of confiscations by NISS. According to testimonies of the journalists running these newspapers, all confiscations were executed without giving them any reason and without any judicial due process.

Individual journalists in Sudan also face a cascade of restrictions, harassments and threats by the government and security forces, making them operate in an environment that is not conducive to freedom of press and speech.

Restrictions on the press in Sudan, the curtailing of press freedom, the harassment of journalists, government interference in the press and worsening economic conditions have collectively led to a sharp decline in the distribution of print newspapers. The National Council of Press and Publication, a government body tasked with monitoring and regulating print media, revealed that there was a great decrease in the distribution figures of newspapers in the first half of 2014 compared to the previous year.

Amid all of this, some Sudanese journalists have resorted to setting up online newspapers in order to enjoy freedom and escape the grasp of security agencies on print newspapers.

Abdelgadir Mohammed is a Sudanese freelance journalist, researcher and human rights analyst based in Khartoum. He was a fellow at Stanford's Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law and at the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). He is the author of several reports on human rights in Sudan as well as two books documenting a wide-range of violations of press freedom committed by Sudanese authorities. In 2012, he was awarded the Hellman/Hammett Grant from Human Rights Watch for his commitment to free expression and his courage in the face of political persecution.

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