(14 August 2017) The African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS) has documented a surge in restrictions on media freedoms in Sudan between late May and mid July 2017.
There is an immediate concern for the safety of three Sudanese online bloggers resident in Saudi Arabia deported to Khartoum at the behest of the Sudanese government on 11 July. The whereabouts of the three men remain unknown and family members have been unable to obtain confirmation of their detention or wellbeing from relevant Sudanese authorities. Also in July, two journalists faced criminal prosecution related to their work. On 10 July, Al Tagheer journalist Amal Habani was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment or a fine of 10,000 Sudanese Pounds (approximately $1500) in connection with an incident in November 2016 when she was arrested trying to observe the trial of a group of civil society activists. She was released when the fine was paid. On 12 July, Algareeda journalist Izzeldien Dahab was charged with defamation, a crime that carries a penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment, in connection with an article he wrote about corruption in the Ministry of Finance in South Darfur. A number of other journalists were summoned and interrogated by the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) in connection with articles they wrote, and the NISS prevented the distribution of five newspapers after publication.
Criminal charges leveled against journalists in Sudan often lack legitimacy and unduly restrict the right to freedom of expression. The use of defamation legislation is often used to curb the criticism of officials and to encourage self-censorship.
ACJPS calls upon the Government of Sudan to immediately disclose the whereabouts and guarantee the safety of the three online bloggers – Mr. Elwaleed Imam Hassan Taha, Mr. Algassim Syed and Mr. Alaa Aldefina – and grant them immediate and unequivocal access to their lawyers and family members. The lack of access to lawyers and family members, together with the well-documented practice of torture and other forms of ill-treatment used by Sudanese security officials, particularly whilst detainees are held in unknown locations, raises serious concerns for their safety and wellbeing.
The Government is further urged to drop charges against Mr. Izzeldien Dahab, which seem motivated by a desire to prevent public discussion on transparency and accountability in public institutions.
ACJPS urges the Government of Sudan to respect and guarantee freedom of expression and free press as provided in article 39 of the Interim National Constitution of 2005 and international and regional human rights treaties that Sudan is a state party to. ACJPS also calls for the decriminalization of defamation and proposed law reform within the country to adhere to regional and international standards to which Sudan has committed, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In its Resolution on the Adoption of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights urged states to ensure their defamation laws conform to certain standards including that, “no one shall be found liable for true statements, opinions or statements regarding public figures which it was reasonable to make in the circumstances; public figures shall be required to tolerate a greater degree of criticism; and, sanctions shall never be so severe as to inhibit the right to freedom of expression.” In its General Comment 34 on freedoms of opinion and expression, the UN Human Rights Committee called on states to consider the decriminalization of defamation and held that “the application of the criminal law should only be countenanced in the most serious of cases and imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty.”
Fear for safety of three online bloggers
On 11 July 2017 three Sudanese online activists were deported to Khartoum from Saudi Arabia. There is serious concern for their safety as Sudanese authorities have failed to disclose their whereabouts since their arrival in Khartoum. Family members have contacted the NISS information desk in Khartoum but have not received a response.
Two of the men, Mr. Elwaleed Imam Hassan Taha and Mr. Algassim Syed Ahmed, both bloggers and accountants, were detained by the Saudi Arabian authorities from their place of work in Riyadh on 21 December 2016 and their residences were also searched. They were detained in a general prison in the Elhaayr neighborhood south of Riyadh, denied access to a lawyer, and permitted just two family visits until the date of their deportation. On 11 June 2017, Saudi Arabian intelligence officers took the two men to the Ministry of Justice to delegate a power of attorney for their financial and other entitlements in Saudi Arabia to one of their family members, and they were told they would be deported to Sudan soon. The third man, Mr. Alaa Aldefina, also an online blogger, had been detained in September 2016.
It is thought that Sudan requested that Saudi Arabia detain and deport the three men because of their online activism and participation in a civil disobedience campaign organized by political opposition parties in Sudan in late 2016. ACJPS documented the arrest of at least forty-two activists during the civil disobedience campaign. During that time the print runs of at least seven newspapers were seized and one private television station, Omdurman TV, was forced to close, in an apparent effort to block public information about the disobedience campaign and arrests of activists.
Prosecution of journalists
On July 10 2017, Ms. Amel Habani, a journalist with Al Tagheer online newspaper, was found guilty of violating articles 103 (threatening a public servant) and 160 (insult and abuse) of the Criminal Act 1991 by the Khartoum South Criminal Court. She was sentenced to a fine of 10,000 Sudanese Pounds (approximately $1,500) or imprisonment for four months. Ms. Habani declined to pay the fine and was sentenced to imprisonment for four months to be served at Omdurman Women’s Prison. She was released when the Sudanese Journalist Network campaigned to raise funds and paid the fine.
Ms. Habani’s prosecution is related to an incident on 10 November 2016 when a member of the NISS prevented her from entering the Central Criminal Court in Khartoum to observe the trial of activists from the Khartoum-based training organisation Tracks for Training and Development (TRACKs). She was stopped at the main gate of the court premises by a NISS officer, Mr. Aymen Farouq, who arrested her and took her to a police station in Khartoum III. She was held for a few hours and then released.
Officer Farouq filed charges against Ms. Habani accusing her of slapping him and insulting him by saying “you are a dog of Al-Bashir”. Ms. Habani denies the charges and alleges it was the officer who slapped her.
On 12 July 2017, Mr. Izzeldien Dahab, a journalist with Algareeda newspaper, was summoned and interrogated by the Press and Publications Prosecutor of Khartoum in connection with an article he published in Algareeda on 10 April 2017 about corruption in the Ministry of Finance in South Darfur. He was charged under article 17 (defamation) of Sudanese Cybercrime Act, 2007 which provides: “Any person who uses an information network, computer hardware or similar for the purpose of defamation shall be liable to a prison sentence not exceeding two years or a fine or both.”
Interrogation of journalists by the security services
On 30 May 2017, Mr. Mohammed Wedda, a journalist and editor in chief of Al-Baath newspaper was summoned to a NISS office in Khartoum. The NISS interrogated Mr. Wedda about an article on the increase of fatalities amongst the Sudanese troops in Yemen. He was informed by the NISS of 15 “red line” issues that he should not write about including: articles on the NISS, deputies and assistants of the President, the army and its movements within and outside Sudan, corruption cases not backed by evidence, state leaders, epidemics, criticism of Sudan’s allies, news on armed movements, interviews with the leadership of armed movements and any news that threatens public safety and undermines national security.
At 1pm on 13 July 2017, the media department of the NISS summoned Ms. Hanadi Al-Siddig, a journalist with Algareeda newspaper to their offices on Almak Nemier Street, Khartoum. She was interrogated for 5 hours and released at 6 pm. She was ordered to report back the following day at 10 am and was interrogated for 2 hours about an article she wrote on abuse of power. The NISS had prevented the distribution of printed copies of the newspaper earlier the same day.
On 15 July 2017 Ms. Maha Eltelib, a journalist with Al Tayar newspaper, received a telephone call from the media department of the NISS summoning her to report to their offices on Almak Nemier street in Khartoum the following day. She was ordered to report with an audio recording of an interview she had conducted with Mr. Osman Taha Al Hussein, the former Director of the Presidential Office and an envoy to several Gulf states, during the AU Summit for Heads of State and Government in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia earlier in July. She reported to the NISS the following day and was interrogated but refused to produce the audio recording of her interview and was released later the same day.
Mr. Taha Osman Al-Hussein was dismissed from his post as Director of the Presidential Officer on 14 June 2017 and a verbal warning had reportedly been issued by the NISS prohibiting the publication of news about his dismissal.
Confiscation and prevention of distribution of newspapers
On 17 June 2017, Akhar Lahza newspaper was confiscated due to an opinion article written by Abdukkah Al-Sheik that offered advice to the President. Print copies were also confiscated on 18 and 19 June 2017.
On 10 July 2017 the NISS confiscated printed copies of Alzawia and Alzaim sport newspapers affiliated with Al-Merrikh Sporting Club, a Sudanese football club. The previous day, the NISS sent out a warning ordering newspapers not to publish news of the International Federation of Football Associations’ (FIFA) suspension of the Sudan Football Association (SFA) following government interference in the association’s administration. The SFA’s suspension was made pending the cancelation of a decree issued by the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Justice dismissing Mutasim Gaafar Sir Elkhatim, the FIFA recognized SFA president, and replacing him with Abdel Rahman Sir Elkhatim who was declared the new SFA president in disputed elections that took place in April 2017.
On the morning of 13 July 2017 the NISS prevented the distribution of printed copies of Algareeda newspaper without giving any reasons. Journalists at the newspaper believe the confiscation was due to a news article on a cholera outbreak in Shandi. The NISS also prevented the distribution of printed copies of Al-Wefaq newspaper, a newspaper affiliated with the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) on the same day without giving any reasons.
ACJPS routinely documents journalists being subjected to repeated summonses and threats of prosecution, arbitrary detention, blacklisting and other forms of harassment such as threatening visits or telephone calls from the NISS ordering them not to report on so-called “red line” issues.
Sudan’s statutory legal framework allows for broad powers of arrest and detention without adequate limitations to ensure against arbitrary detention and the abuse of power. Scores of detainees have testified to ACJPS their experiences of ill-treatment and torture at the hands of the NISS, police and armed forces.
Contact: Mossaad Mohamed Ali, ACJPS Executive Director / Emily Cody, ACJPS Senior Programme Officer: +256 779584542 / +256 788695068 (Kampala), or email@example.com.