When Abbaker Musa died at a University of Khartoum protest, Sudan’s newspapers carried a statement saying authorities had used tear gas.
Upstart news website al-Tareeq, which means ‘the Way’ in Arabic, reported that he was gunned down, citing eye-witness accounts that the police fired live ammunition at peaceful demonstrators on March 11. After London-based Amnesty International condemned the crackdown in the capital, Khartoum, the website reported that too.
Three months later, with the site having been viewed by 47,000 people since January, al-Tareeq’s eight reporters work in anonymity, hold hushed meetings in public venues and file stories quoting contacts gleaned from previous jobs in Sudan’s tightly monitored print media. An April pledge by President Umar al-Bashir to loosen press restrictions was followed by new curbs on reporting and a wave of newspaper confiscations.
The Internet has “made possible a degree of discussion that was not really imaginable 10 years ago in a country like Sudan,” Harry Verhoeven, who teaches African politics at Oxford University, said by phone from London on April 24. Issues such as Sudanese police brutality and the state’s use of corporal punishment are more open to discussion because of online media, he said.
With low startup costs and the promise of anonymity, online media is enabling reporters to dodge censorship in what Reporters Without Borders ranks as one of the world’s 10 worst countries for press intimidation and distribute news that the print newspapers can’t.
Al-Tareeq went live in January, covering everything from political intrigues in Khartoum to violence in the western region of Darfur, its 33-year-old founder said in an interview in the capital, asking that his name not be used to avoid government retribution. His journalists use encrypted Internet connections to shield their identities and rely on a web server in Sweden to protect the site from cyber attacks.
Sudan is ranked 172 out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index, with security services subjecting newspapers, television and radio to constant pressure, according to the group. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says journalists have been detained without charge, with some alleging torture by the security forces.
Sudanese Information Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman said measures to suspend newspapers and question reporters are legal and don’t violate press freedoms.
“Sudan has over 20 political papers, if one is suspended, that doesn’t mean that freedom of speech is under threat,” he said by phone on June 4. “If a newspaper breaks the law, it must be held accountable. Some papers spread false news, others instigate crimes and immoral acts that cannot be allowed. It’s our duty to maintain order and protect high values.”
Al-Bashir, who’s ruled Sudan since a 1989 coup, at the start of this year said he would restore trust in the government and allow greater political participation. His pledge came after September protests in which Amnesty said more than 200 people were killed, spurring dissent among some members of the ruling National Congress Party.
The European Union on May 28 said Sudan has imposed “renewed limits” on freedom of expression. Authorities recently moved to ban coverage of events including criminal investigations involving Sadig al-Mahdi, an opposition leader accused of insulting the military. Al-Sayha, a newspaper owned by al-Bashir’s uncle that had published stories on alleged corruption, was suspended on May 20.
Authorities have confiscated as many as 27 editions of publications in the capital this year, according to the Khartoum-based Journalists for Human Rights. In the week to June 1, prosecutors summoned at least 14 journalists for questioning on accusations including publishing false news, sedition and disclosing official documents, JHR said.
Yesterday’s edition of al-Jareeda was confiscated by security forces after printing as a means of “economically pressuring newspapers into submission,” JHR cited the paper’s editor, Idriss el-Doma, as saying. El-Doma and an al-Jareeda reporter appeared before a court today accused of violating press laws, JHR said.
“They don’t want the public to get true information about civil wars in the country, human-rights violations or corruption,” Madiha Abdalla, editor of the Communist Party-linked newspaper al-Midan, said in an April interview. “The list of red lines just gets longer.”
Information Minister Osman said the government’s measures are normal in a “fragile country.”
“This is to protect national security, to protect the state, not the government -- every country in the world has red lines that are not crossed,” he said. The government’s seeking to “maintain and expand the margins of freedom.”
Online media faces fewer restrictions because Sudan’s government may not want to spend substantial amounts of money to monitor it, given the low number of Internet users in the country, Philip Howard, a communications professor at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, said in an April 24 e-mailed response to questions.
Osman said the government is considering new legislation to regulate online media, in line with “a global trend.” Some sites “just want to oppose the government by spreading rumors online,” he said. “Someone who seeks the truth can’t depend on such questionable sources.” He said he hopes a national media conference scheduled for June 25 will draft a press charter to be respected by the government and journalists.
Sudan has about 40 newspapers that distribute a combined average of 300,000 copies per day, according to al-Obeid Murawih, secretary-general of the state-linked Press Council. Almost half of them only cover sports and entertainment, he said in an April 15 phone interview.
Twenty-one people of every 100 in Sudan have Internet access, the World Bank estimated in 2012. That compares with 44 in Egypt and 41 in Tunisia. During September’s protests, activists used the web to share images and video. Internet access in Sudan was cut off on Sept. 25 for almost 24 hours, according to Renesys, an Internet-monitoring site.
By publishing online, al-Tareeq has also been able to reach beyond the traditional newspaper market, with villagers able to get their news via the Internet on their mobile phones, its founder said.
Sudanese Online, which aggregates and translates stories on Sudan from Khartoum-based newspapers, sees about 300,000 daily visitors, a quarter of them in Sudan, Bakri Abu Bakr, who founded the site in 1999, said by phone from Arizona.
While the relative expense of using the Internet curbs the number of clicks from Sudan, he said, “our influence among the educated classes, intellectuals and students is great -- these classes can lead change.”