Wednesday , November 22 2017
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In one week across Sudan, criminal charges leveled against journalist, NGO’s registration suspended, and newspapers subjected to censorship

(6 July 2017) The African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS) has documented three serious incidents of violations to the freedom of expression and association from 14 – 19 June: a journalist in Sawakin faces criminal charges under article 159 (defamation) of the 1991 Sudanese Criminal Act; a public health non-governmental organisation (NGO), Emergency Street Initiative (ESI), in Kassala has had their work suspended by the Humanitarian Affairs Commission (HAC); and a traditionally pro-government newspaper, Akhir Lahza, was prevented from distributing printed copies on 18 and 19 June 2017 in Khartoum.

Defamation charges filed against journalist

On the morning of 14 June 2017 Mohamed Elamin Oshek, a journalist with Al-Mijhar Al-Siyasi newspaper in Sawakin, eastern Sudan, was summoned by the police. At the police station, he was informed that a criminal complaint had been filed against him under article 159 (defamation) of the 1991 Sudanese Criminal Act.

Two days prior, on 12 June 2017, Mr. Oshek’s family had been contacted and told by the Commissioner of Sawakin, Khalid Sadoun, to place pressure on Mr. Oshek to cease his journalistic work. His family and leaders of his ethnic group have been pressured in the past by NISS agents.

The criminal complaint was filed by Mohamed Fathallah, the municipal director in Sawakin, following the publication of articles in Al-Mijhar Al-Siyasi by Mr. Oshek on the lack of basic service provision, particularly water and electricity, in Sawakin. The basis of the charges rest on accusations by Mr. Fathallah that Mr. Oshek’s published criticism undermines his reputation in Sawakin.

Mr. Oshek was interrogated for one hour by police on his articles and journalistic work, and detained till 6pm and released on bail. His case has not yet been referred to Sawakin Criminal Court.

Suspension of NGO in Kassala

On 14 June 2017, the Minister of Health in Kassala, eastern Sudan, suspended the registration of the Emergency Street Initiative (ESI). ESI is a nationwide initiative established by youth activists to provide access to healthcare for marginalized communities and fill gaps in health service provision in Sudan. The main source of income for ESI is donations.  ESI was first established in 2013 and officially registered with the HAC in Kassala in 2016.  The HAC is the federal regulatory body governing civil society work in Sudan.

At the time of its suspension, ESI had been working closely on a project with Kassala Hospital and also conducting awareness activities regarding cholera prevention in the region.

The following day, 15 June, the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) of Kassala summoned a representative of ESI to deliver all project materials to the Ministry of Health.

On 21 June 2017, ESI received a letter from the HAC officially suspending their work on the basis that ESI had violated article 23 (violations of licensing and registration) of the 2006 Voluntary and Humanitarian Work Act (VHWA). Their registration was suspended for six months under article 24(2)(g) of the VHWA.

There are chapters of ESI in Sudan operational that do not have formal registration with the Humanitarian Aid, but ESI in Kassala had been registered with the HAC since 2016.

Traditionally pro-government Akhir Lahza newspaper confiscated twice in one week

On 18 and 19 June 2017, the NISS prevented the distribution of printed copies of Akhir Lahza, a traditionally pro-government newspaper, without giving a rationale for their actions. Credible sources reported to ACJPS that they believed that the prevention of distribution was based on criticism by the paper of restrictive rights in Sudan to the freedom of expression.

Days before, on 14 June, newspapers in Khartoum were also verbally warned by telephone by the NISS to not publish articles on the dismissal of General Taha Osman Al Hussein, the former Director of the Presidential Office and an envoy to several Gulf states. General Taha was briefly arrested at the Khartoum airport on the evening of 13 June before being allowed to leave the country.

ACJPS calls on the Government of Sudan to respect and guarantee freedom of expression and free press as provided in article 39 of the Interim National Constitution as well as international and regional human rights treaties that Sudan is a state party to. ACJPS also calls on the government of Sudan to drop the charges against Mr. Oshek, which seem motivated by a desire to prevent public discussion of delivery of basic services rather than a desire to protect the reputation of an individual.

States and institutions with a role to play in influencing the Government of Sudan should condemn the continued restrictions on the media, freedoms of association and of peaceful assembly, and the use of arbitrary detention and criminal charges to harass and intimidate civil society.

Background

Pre-print and post-print censorship have been routinely used by the NISS to intimidate editors from publishing on what are often referred to as ‘red line’ issues, which are issues that the authorities deem sensitive and seek to control in public debate. It is also thought to have the intended impact of causing editors to self-censor to avoid financial losses. Though the issues deemed ‘red line’ are often blurry and unclear, current themes subjected to censorship include any coverage of the armed conflict in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile states and the actions of the Sudanese Armed Forces, references to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and reports of corruption. The NISS has increasingly sought to censor not only independent newspapers or those affiliated to opposition political parties, but also those that are traditionally supportive of or affiliated to the ruling National Congress Party (NCP).

ACJPS has repeatedly documented 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. A tactic deployed by the NISS has also included the leveraging of criminal charges against journalists. On 7 May 2107, Sudan’s Press and Publications Council convicted and sentenced Madiha Abdalla, (f), editor in chief of Al Midan newspaper, to a fine of 10,000 Sudanese pounds (approximately $1,500) after convicting her under articles 159 (defamation) and 66 (dissemination of false news) of the 1991 Sudanese Criminal Act. The charges stem from a case filed by the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) two years ago, and are believed to be related to a story Ms. Abdalla published regarding aerial bombardment in South Kordofan in 2015. Ms. Abdalla currently has one other 2014 pending case before the Press and Publications Court.

Post-print censorship, when a newspaper’s edition is confiscated after being printed, causes significant financial losses to media outlets. Post-print censorship can have the effect of causing editors to self-censor, as confiscation could cost a newspaper up to $5,000 in printing costs.

A number of Sudanese laws restrict the right to peaceful expression, association and assembly, including provisions of the 1991 Sudanese Penal Code and the 2009 Press and Publications Act. This problematic legislation has been used to press criminal charges against journalists and confiscate newspapers from printing houses. For a deeper analysis, see ACJPS’ most recent publication The Reality is Very Dark: The Right to Freedom of Expression in Sudan.

The operations of civil society organisations, particularly those working in defence of human rights, are severely curtailed by formal and informal restrictions, and activities are regularly subjected to cancellations following the intervention of the NISS.

The HAC was created alongside the adoption of the Voluntary and Humanitarian Work Act (VHWA) in 2006. It has been known to intimidate and harass independent civil society, and impede the access of humanitarian organisations to displaced populations. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) briefly suspended their work in North Darfur in 2012 when the HAC refused to allow the transfer of medical supplies.

In the lead up to the 2015 national general elections, at least three independent civil society groups had their registration permits withdrawn, including the Mahmoud Mohammed Taha Cultural Center, the National Civic Forum, and the Sudanese Writers’ Union. In December 2014, the premises of the Sudanese Human Rights Monitors’ were raided.

The Centre for Training and Human Development (TRACKs) was raided twice: once in March 2015 and again in February 2016, and staff and affiliates of TRACKs faced criminal charges in 2016 in two overlapping cases. Human rights defenders Khalafalla Al-Afif Mukhtar (director of TRACKS), Midhat A. Hamdan (a trainer at TRACKS) and Mustafa Adam (the director of Zarga Organisation for Rural Development) were arrested and held for 86 days without charge from 22 May – 15 August 2016, when they were charged with various crimes against the state charges which carry the death penalty. The trial proceedings were marred by several procedural issues, such as lack of presentation of the list of charges against the group as well as the harassment and intimidation of individuals attending the court sessions. The men were not released till 5 March 2017 from Al-Huda prison in Omdurman, after being released on time served and fined after being convicted of dissemination of false information and possession of immoral material, and Mr. Adam of espionage.

Contact: Mossaad Mohamed Ali/ Emily Cody: +256 779584542/ +256 788695068 (Kampala), or info@acjps.org.