(12 May 2017) 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.
During the trial, the only evidence presented against Ms. Abdalla was testimony from NISS witnesses, who are the complainant in the case.
Since the filing of the case, the charges have remained dormant, with Ms. Abdalla continuing to work as a journalist, though she has since resigned from her role as editor of Al Midan newspaper. She has been summoned by the NISS at least once in 2015 for protesting confiscations of print runs of Al Midan.
Al Midan is frequently targeted by Sudanese authorities and is subjected to confiscations. From January – February 2015, Al Midan was confiscated ten times. The African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS), has repeatedly documented journalists being been 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.
ACJPS considers Ms. Abdalla’s conviction on dormant charges to be an attempt by the Sudanese authorities to send a message to other journalists that although there has been very little censorship of the media in Sudan since October and November’s civil disobedience campaign, the Press and Publications Council is still monitoring the media closely.
We also question the basis of the charges brought against Ms. Abdalla and fair trial proceedings, as no other evidence was presented other than testimony from the complainant. The delayed nature of the trial and reactivation of the charges also undermined the ability of Ms. Abdalla to prepare a defence. ACJPS considers the charges to be spurious and have no legitimate legal basis, and to be solely related to Ms. Abdalla’s work as an independent journalist in Sudan.
ACJPS calls on the Government of Sudan, particularly as they consider the upcoming constitutional review process, to amend all laws and practices which are used to restrict the freedom of expression in Sudan, particularly the 2010 National Security Act, 1991 Sudanese Penal Code, and the 2009 Press and Publications Act. These restrictions have severely limited the availability of independent and reliable information. The government must end all harassment, arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment and criminal charges against journalists and activists for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
Our organisations believe that criminal charges levelled against journalists and activists often lack legitimacy and are connected solely to their human rights activities, instead constituting a means of legitimising arbitrary detention and encouraging self-censorship. We call for proposed law reform within the country to adhere to regional and international standards to which Sudan has committed to, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
We also call for the Press and Publication Courts to reconsider the conviction of Ms. Abdalla, and make publicly available a list of credible evidence used to convict her.
The Press and Publications Act is a problematic piece of Sudanese legislation: though designed to protect and ensure the freedom of expression for journalists, the Act and its attendant Council, which is made up of 40% political detainees, 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.
Although the government of Sudan has declared its acceptance of recommendations made during its Universal Periodic Review before the UN Human Rights Council, Sudan has taken steps backwards in its commitment: to “ensure freedom of expression, including for the media, and ensure that all alleged attacks against journalists and human rights defenders are promptly and independently investigated”; and to “end violent suppression of protesters, and arbitrary detention of political activists and journalists.”
Restrictions on the press have culminated in a wide information gap within the country, with little access to independent news sources apart from those online. Only 27% of the country has access to the internet, seriously curtailing the extent to which information regarding the human rights situation across the country and in the conflict zones of South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur is publicly available.
A spate of arrests occurred in November and December 2016 alongside a civil disobedience campaign. On top of the arrests was a sustained policy by the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) of seizing newspapers from different media houses, including traditionally pro-government newspapers, in efforts to block all public discourse regarding the civil disobedience campaign and concomitant arrests. One private television station, Omdurman TV, was forced to close, and between 6 November and 6 December, seven newspapers, including four which are traditionally seen as being pro-government, were not allowed to distribute printed copies a total of 27 times.
Ms. Abdalla was originally summoned by the NISS at 10am on 13 January 2015 to their offices on Al Amarat street for interrogation. Ms. Abdulla was informed that an arrest warrant against her had been issued. On 14 January Ms. Abdulla was interrogated by the Prosecutor for Crimes against the State after a criminal case (file no. 60) was filed by the NISS. She was charged the same day on 14 January under articles 50 (Undermining the Constitutional System), 63 (Calling for Opposition to Public Authority by use of Violence or Criminal Force), and 66 (Publication of False News) of the 1991 Sudanese Penal Code. Article 50 of the Penal Code falls under the category of crimes against the state, and carries the death penalty. The case was transferred to Khartoum Central Court. Ms. Abdulla appeared before the judge before being released on bail at 7pm.
On 17 January 2015, the Prosecutor of Crimes against the State issued further charges against Ms. Madiha Abdulla, and issued charges against journalist Osman Merghani, the head of the political section of Al Midan, and writer and Communist party leader Suleiman Hamid. They were charged under articles 21 (Joint acts of criminal conspiracy), 63 (calling for opposition to public authority by use of violence or criminal force), and 66 (publication of false news) of the 1991 Sudanese Penal Code and articles 24 (criminal liability of editor in chief) and 26 (conditions of newspaper licenses) of the 2010 Media and Publications Act.
In Kampala, Mossaad Mohamed Ali (English, Arabic, Swedish): +256 779584542; or Emily Cody, (English): +256 788695068, firstname.lastname@example.org.