16 December 2021
On 17 November, journalist Ali Farsab, 31, headed to the Bahri area in north Khartoum to cover the enormous anti-coup demonstrations. There had been multiple nationwide protests against military leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan since his power grab on 25 October, but this day proved to be the deadliest yet as 16 protesters were killed by security forces.
“The police fired live and rubber bullets and hurled sound bombs and tear gas grenades as if they were fighting a war and not a peaceful procession,” says Farsab. His scalp was grazed by a bullet before soldiers beat him, fracturing his hand as his head bled. When his assailants saw protestors filming them, they carried Farsab to a side alley and continued to hit him.
“You are not worth anything to us or to the ruling authority,” he recalls one of his attackers shouting. “Just one bullet and you’re finished.”
Farsab says the blows and insults only increased once the soldiers learnt he was a reporter for the independent newspaper Al-Tayyar. He was held for three days, during which he was denied medical treatment, before his eventual release.
Sudan has had a tumultuous few years. In April 2019, a huge popular uprising led to the removal of former dictator Omar al-Bashir after 30 years in power. In the aftermath, military leaders and representatives of the people negotiated a gradual transition towards full civilian leadership.
This fragile arrangement has been rocky and much maligned, but it was at least moving Sudan towards the agreed date for civilian leadership to take effect. That is, until General Burhan – perhaps fearing retribution for past war crimes or not wanting to hand over the vast wealth obtained by the military – launched the coup this October and arrested Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
Once again, demonstrators immediately took to the streets in cities and towns across the country. After weeks of sustained protests, the military government on 21 November offered some concessions by releasing Hamdok from house arrest and reinstating him as Prime Minister. But key civil society groups rejected the agreement, and protests have continued against any deal that would involve the military.
An attack on the media
Since 25 October, hope in a transition towards democracy has been dealt a serious blow. According to Farsab, one of the first casualties of the coup was Sudan’s newfound freedom of expression.
Just before midnight on 24 October, the former information minister reported on Facebook that military forces had stormed the state broadcaster in Omdurman and arrested employees. First thing on the morning of 25 October, Burhan then issued a “presidential decree” to dismiss the General Director of the national news agency SUNA. Its website went down for almost a week, while its offices remained closed for the first time since the 1970s. According to Hassan Farouk, a member of the Sudanese Journalists Network, SUNA’s staff were also summarily fired and replaced with former Bashir cadres.
“We almost had a professional news wire during the transitional period,” says freelance journalist Mohamed Saleh. “Now we’re back to the former lies.”
Military authorities also disconnected the Internet. It was turned back on in late November, but authorities continue to block social media platforms, meaning people have to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to access these apps and maintain private conversations.
Security forces were similarly quick to shutter radio stations, a popular and accessible source of information in Sudan. Yasser Abu Shamal, director-general of Hala Radio, told African Arguments that the military suspended his station in the early hours of 25 October along with the BBC and Monte Carlo. Authorities accused these three outlets of inciting hatred towards the military, a charge Abu Shamal denies.
This allegation of media bias was a sign of things to come. In a 26 October press conference, Burhan threatened “strong measures” against journalists who criticised the army without “documenting the facts”.
The independent print media was not spared either. On 28 October, security forces stormed the building of El Demokrati (“The Democratic”), an independent Arabic daily. “The military broke in on the third day of the coup after keeping an eye on the building for two days,” says Chief Editor Asmaa Mohamed. “They surrounded the empty office trying to arrest any journalist they found near our office.”
Meanwhile, the Press and Publications Council, a government body, made repeated calls to the newspaper Al-Jareeda, condemning articles that criticised the military and warning its editors to avoid denouncing the coup.
In other instances, security forces kidnapped individual journalists. On 13 November, masked military intelligence abducted Shawgi Abdul Azim after he had given an interview to Al-Jazeera in which he was deemed to have been overly critical of the regime. Azim’s kidnappers, he told African Arguments, forced him to sign a pledge not to criticise the military in the future.
Other journalists have faced similar attacks. Atif Mohamed, the editor of El Sudani newspaper, was driving home when masked men blocked his car and attempted to abduct him. Mohamed narrowly managed to escape. “It felt like a scene in an action movie,” he says. “Many other journalists were kidnapped from their cars and abducted the same way. It’s a carefully engineered plan to silence any opposing voices and to keep journalists from reporting.”
A rejected compromise
On 21 November, the military re-instated Prime Minister Hamdok, saying he would have full authority to appoint his cabinet and insisting the civilian transition was back in effect. Local journalists, however, say repression of the press continues as before.
“There is no civil power still. The military-led sovereign council still has the authority to carry out all the executive decisions in the state,” says Mohamed Abdul Aziz, editor of El Demokrati. “The impact of the coup on the democratic transition and press freedom remains the same despite this agreement with Hamdok. The fact that some outlets are still shut is proof of that.”
Several reporters say they remain highly cautious and self-censor due to fears of retribution. Some said they only conduct interviews behind closed doors and believe their phones might be being tracked.
“Journalism has become a profession fraught with dangers, which makes its role and future very dark in these conditions,” says Farsab. “I don’t think journalism can move forward under the circumstances we are in now, because freedom is the essence of the press and the lung through which it breathes.”
Journalists are not, however, giving up. They too have organised protests to demand press freedom, while banners with the slogan “Free press or no press” can be seen across Nile Street in Khartoum. In their latest demonstration on 8 December, reporters called for the re-opening of Hala Radio. That evening, authorities lifted the station’s ban.
“What matters now is strengthening the cohesion and unity of the media community [so] we can push for a better future,” says Nasreldin Abdel Qader, Chief Editor of newspaper Al-Qasas. “If not, it’s as if we are clinging to a cloud.”
In another celebrated act of resistance, Nazik Muhammed Youssef, a television presenter on the state broadcaster, refused to read out a false statement on air. She had been told to say only one person had died in a recent protest in Khartoum, but Youssef knew the true figure was much higher. “This really provoked me, so I refused to broadcast this statement on my morning programme,” she says. “I felt the pain of the mothers who lost their sons and the need to uphold my profession – to tell the truth, and refuse to falsify the facts.”
Finally, journalists continue to use social media to disseminate facts. According to journalist Ayman Sangrab, these platforms, which are harder for the military to control, have played an increasingly influential role in spreading information, news, and ideas in Sudan since 2019.
“Once the press and the public have tasted a little freedom as we did during the transitional period, it’s impossible to go back,” Saleh said.