We generally take free press for granted. Here in Canada, we may complain about bias or criticize newspapers for favouring one perspective at the expense of another. In the case of certain sources that fawn over politicians or refrain from critically analyzing certain facets of an issue, these criticisms are justified. Overall, though, things aren’t that bad. I can read vicious invectives against every political figure in Canada. I can look at satirical concerns that depict our prime minister as a fumbling buffoon, and afterward I can breeze through editorials claiming that Justin Trudeau’s entry into politics harbingers nothing short of Armageddon. Most importantly, I can learn about what the government is doing and criticize it if I am dissatisfied. When organizations like Human Rights Watch are allowed to produce reports about human rights issues in Canada or Amnesty International is able to keep tabs on what our government institutions our doing, I am able to access that information and use to participate in the democratic process. I may as well just repeat the old cliché here: we need free press if we want to influence what the government is up to. The people of the Republic Of The Sudan are not so fortunate to have it.
Sudanese newspapers, online forums, and other sources of media tend to be shut down if they express views that aren’t supported by the ruling government. This tendency has been intermittent but its goals seem consistent: to hinder people from understanding the scope of violence the government is committing. The government of the Republic Of The Sudan has achieved this goal through what scholars consider “a framework of bureaucratic regulations” and intimidation of journalists (Chalk). The National Council for Press and Publications (NCPP) polices newspaper content through licensing of media outlets and government oversight of what’s printed. To start a newspaper, people have to apply for a licence through this body. Applying for a permit may not seem that big of a deal, but the process is political and pro-government groups are favoured when it comes to being allowed to print materials. The National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) branch of the government also carries out media censorship. It imposes punitive measures for newspapers that write insufficiently favourable articles about sensitive subjects like armed conflict with rebels or al-Bashir’s indictment by the ICC. The NISS may phone the business offices of newspapers to tell them not to cover certain issues, harass journalists and threaten them with violence, or simply shut newspapers down. I don’t think I need to say that this can definitely put a damper on what stories newspapers choose to write about!
The 2005 Interim National Constitution, which was adopted in the Republic Of The Sudan as part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, was supposed to guarantee free speech. Journalists were supposed to have more freedom in their reporting and newspapers were supposed to be subject to less pre-printing censorship. However, like other facets of the CPA, this ideal has not yet come to fruition. First, the restrictive Press and Printed Press Materials Law – which enabled newspapers to be arbitrarily shut down and allowed the NISS to approve articles before they were published – stayed in place until 2009, suggesting that following the obligations of the CPA was not a priority when it came to respecting the importance of free speech. It was replaced by a new law, but the replacement “allows for restrictions on the press in the interests of national security and public order”. In other words, anything subjectively considered to potentially incite violence – i.e. any criticism, really, of what rebel groups or government proxies are doing – is grounds for censoring.
We can look at some examples of media censorship to get an idea of how these policies play out. Commencing April 3, independent daily newspapers al-Ayyam and al-Sahafa have to clear their content with the NISS before they print. Newspapers al-Khartoum and al-Youm al-Tali staff, meanwhile, are regularly harassed by government representatives. In January 2004, the government of the Republic Of The Sudan shut down Al-Jazeera’s offices for “promoting false reports about Sudan” and in April 2004 an employees was sentenced to a month in prison for spreading propaganda (Chalk). A particularly notable example of stifling free speech occurred in the build-up to the 2011 secession of South Sudan, when journalists were harassed, detained, threatened with arrest, and tortured. During that same year, foreign journalists were also targeted: BBC employees were detained and questioned, while more unlucky Al-Jazeera correspondents were assaulted by Sudanese security forces. There’s also this perversely humorous incident: May 15 of this year, Vice President Ali Osman Taha issued a directive to “lift pre-publication censorship on newspapers”. He issued these orders on a Wednesday, stating that they were effective immediately. The NISS banned newspapers from publishing those remarks.
Censuring journalists is a way to avoid sensitive things from being covered. Journalists are forbidden from writing about the conflict in Darfur and the border region, which means that people don’t have access to information that will allow them to understand the situation and formulate their own opinions. Additionally, this lack of public record makes it difficult for people to be aware of the scale and scope of the violence being carried out by the government and its proxies. In response to international reports that referred to the conflict in Darfur as “genocide,” for example, the media in the Republic Of The Sudan referred to such claims as “propaganda” (Chalk). “Vigorously” reacting to international media reports and substituting an alternate reality is only necessary if those media claims posed some sort of danger to the regime – although the Darfur situation has not been resolved, naming the crimes and detailing atrocities may galvanize opposition from those within and outside of the Republic of Sudan. That potential for free press access applies to the Nuba Mountains, too. In 2011, the New York Times published a letter from a Sudanese activist, analyst, and journalist who requested contact with skilled media professionals to help “inform and activate all the very good Sudanese who […] would be horrified by what their government is doing but have no idea what is actually happening”. And the barring of foreign journalists from the Nuba Mountains is so commonly known that it need not be stated. In an era when people are interconnected, when civil society groups can gather and pressure a foreign government to respond to human rights concerns, and when citizens can mobilize to pressure their own governments to respond to the human rights violations of other states, journalism can be a threat. Why would it be done, if not to prevent people from understanding the situation and demanding action to remedy it? As one researcher notes, keeping journalists from doing their jobs is how governments carry out their crimes with impunity. If nobody is looking, why stop? And so journalists must look while governments try to blind them.
Chalk, Frank and Danielle Kelton. “Mass-Atrocity Crimes in Darfur and the Response of Government of Sudan Media to International Pressure,” in The World and Darfur, 2nd Edition, ed. Amanda E. Grzyb (Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010), 112