25 September 2018

Africa: SPLM's Yassir Arman - 'The Media Is Under Siege in Sudan'

A recent episode of a DW Arabic talk show stirred controversy in Sudan after a woman spoke of sexual harassment there. One of Sudan's leading opposition figures told DW that human rights have deteriorated in the country.

DW's Arabic-language show Shabab Talk sparked controversy this past week when Weam Shawky criticized sexual harassment in Sudan. "When I'm walking on the street and a man treats me like an object, not as a human being, the person who gives him the right to harass me is sick," she said, addressing an Islamic scholar who was also a guest on the show.

The episode ended up all over the front pages of Sudanese newspapers, and led the US Embassy to warn its citizens that protests could occur near Sudania 24, which broadcast the show. The host, Jaafar Abdul Karim, also received death threats.

Yassir Arman, who challenged Omar al-Bashir for the presidency in 2010 with the opposition Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), told DW that the episode had stimulated public discourse in a country where the state of human rights has deteriorated.

DW: You and other members of the opposition are at the United Nations in Geneva this week. What is your delegation aiming to achieve?

Yassir Arman: We are in Geneva at the trial sessions of the Human Rights Council to discuss resolutions about Sudan. We came here while many Sudanese civil society organizations were denied access. The current draft resolutions on Sudan are very weak in our view. We want to convey the voice of the Sudanese people to the council, the UN members states, as well as to civil organizations, so they know exactly what is taking place in Sudan.

The current draft resolutions made by the council can be traced to the propaganda of the Sudanese government. The resolutions do not reflect the reality on the ground in Sudan. These resolutions will give the Sudanese government free hand to continue human rights abuses with impunity. It encourages the Sudanese government to do what they have been doing for the last three decades in Sudan. In the council we are hearing voices that are saying that the situation in Sudan is all right, while, at the same time, President Omar al-Bashir has been indicted for war crimes.

How has the the human rights situation deteriorated under al-Bashir? What has been the effect on women's rights?

In general, the state of human rights in the country has deteriorated in every way. The president of Sudan is the only head of state who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on the serious issues of genocide and war crimes. Women have been marginalized in Sudanese society and have been subjected to harassment and rape. Their lives have been destroyed, especially in the war zones, like Darfur. In urban areas, thousands of women have been taken to court due to public order laws.

The Islamists in Sudan only care about what women are wearing, whether it be trousers or hijab. They are not concerned about lack of education for women or about women who have been deprived of the basic needs of life. The Islamists will cry when they see a naked woman, but not when she has died due to starvation. Thousands of women have been displaced due to government policies in the war zones. The Islamists discuss what women should wear but don't discuss how women can get a decent job and make a decent life in Sudan.

A preacher accused the Shabab Talk episode of spreading atheism. What is the state of religious tolerance under al-Bashir?

If there was tolerance in Sudan, a TV program would not have made all this fuss. It is a real shock for the Islamists in the regime to see Weam Shawky and younger Sudanese who have been born and raised up in Sudan have their own views against the regime. They have rejected the political Islam project in Sudan, which humiliates women. Women are the first target of the political Islam in Sudan. The Sudanese government even now wants to close down the studios of Sudania 24 because they were shocked that the younger generation is expressing these views.

The youth are clear in their demands for freedom and a decent job. They want it so women can equally participate in building a society. The episode opened the debate on the victims of political Islam against the sheikhs and members of the country's religious elite. They are shocked that the younger generation is exposed to the outside world due to social media and that they have the ability to access information all over the world.

What's the relationship between the media and the government in Sudan?

I can't think of one free newspaper or TV station in Sudan. Newspapers such as al-Tayyar or al-Jareeda are prevented by the government from being distributed, after the papers are printed at a high cost. The government does this to destroy the publishers of these papers. The Sudanese security apparatus is in control of everything, from the editing board to the editor-in-chief. They go to the newspapers every night and check what they are going to publish for the next day. The same goes for TV broadcasts. The media is under siege in Sudan. Sudanese journalists have told their stories abroad about how they have no free environment to do their work.

The United States lifted sanctions last year, yet Sudan's economy is still struggling. Is the government responsible for this?

There is a high degree of corruption. The lack of transparency and the lack of democracy has let corruption flourish. Sudan needs a paradigm shift. The political class controls the country and has ended production in the important sectors of agriculture and mining. The political Islamists and elites are looting the Sudanese state. This crisis can only be solved by a new political and economic system which will bring democratic change so that the Sudanese people can decide on an economy that can benefit the majority. The government destroyed the economy by having wars in agriculturally fertile areas such as Darfur.

What are the goals of the Sudan Call opposition movement?

Our dream is for Sudan to be a peaceful country. We want to end dictatorship and bring democratic transformation. We want people to govern themselves and to have just relations between the center and periphery in Sudan. We want equal citizenship for everyone, regardless of religion, social background or gender. We also want to normalize relations between Sudan and the outside world.

We currently have 6 million Sudanese who are displaced, and they need space in their own country and a decent life, or they else will go the EU or the US. We need a system that will give people a decent life -- a system that will provide education and health care. Today's regime is spending less than 2 percent on health care, and 70 percent of its budget on war. By ending these wars we will have resources for health care and education.

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