The Sudanese government is engaged in an increasingly blatant effort to muzzle and intimidate Sudan's independent press, Human Rights Watch said today.
"While international media attention has been focused on Darfur, the Sudanese authorities in Khartoum have been stepping up their harassment of Sudanese journalists and newspapers," said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The harassment is symptomatic of Khartoum's fear of mounting popular dissent and frustration at government policies and actions."
In recent months government security forces have carried out numerous acts of censorship, arrests of journalists, and arbitrary inspections of newspaper offices and printing presses.
Since the beginning of 2006 at least 15 Sudanese and foreign journalists have been arrested and detained, and since September the security forces have resumed the practice of pre-print inspections of newspapers in an apparent effort to censor sensitive news. In some instances editions of newspapers have been banned altogether.
In September, newspaper editors were warned not to cover the violent police actions against anti-government demonstrations which took place in Khartoum on August 30 and September 6 following the announcement of price increases for fuel, sugar and other basic goods.
The government also imposed a ban on reporting or comment on the case of Mohamed Taha Mohamed Ahmed, the editor of the Islamist al-Wifaq newspaper, whose decapitated body was found on September 6, a day after he was abducted by a group of armed men from his home in Khartoum.
In addition Sudanese security services have routinely restricted the international and Sudanese media's coverage of the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Even once they have obtained visas for Sudan, international media face increasing restrictions on their travel to Darfur and their ability to move freely and interview individuals in the region.
"The government's strategy of intimidating journalists in Khartoum has had some effect," said Takirambudde. "The Sudanese media, especially Arabic newspapers, toe the government line on key issues such as Darfur. And the human rights violations being carried out by the security forces in the region are not being reported."
The latest clampdown on free expression in Sudan comes less than two years after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in January 2005, which put an end to the 21-year civil war in southern Sudan and led to the formation last year of a Government of National Unity. The CPA also led to the lifting of a long-running state of emergency, except in Darfur and until recently, eastern Sudan. The Interim National Constitution established in 2005 provides for freedom of the press and guarantees citizens' right to freedom of expression under Article 39.
"The CPA is supposed to lead to elections in 2008 throughout Sudan," said Takirambudde. "The elections are a crucial milestone in putting the whole of Sudan on the path to sustainable peace. But the current limitations on free expression and harassment of journalists show just how far there is to go to create a political environment conducive to free and fair elections."