Freedom of the Press
Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
While the situation for the press in the north of Sudan and the Darfur region remained largely as restrictive in 2006 as in previous years, improvements in media freedom were noticeable in the southern region, particularly as a result of the autonomous southern government’s increased tolerance of critical reportage. President Omar al-Bashir’s concentration of power has been reduced somewhat by the January 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between north and south and its attendant power-sharing arrangements. The interim constitution provides for freedom of thought and expression, but this is respected only on a rhetorical level by those in power. The Sudanese government’s main preoccupation in 2006 was how best to manage international reaction to the Darfur situation. While prepublication censorship has been officially lifted, Sudan’s security personnel regularly harass and censor journalists. In addition to the security forces, the National Press Council (NPC) has the right to sanction journalists and suspend publications, and it regularly abuses these rights in order to censor outlets with critical material.
Throughout 2006, journalists faced harassment, violent attacks, intimidation, and direct censorship at the hands of both government and nongovernmental forces. In a September case that shocked the Sudanese public and press corps, gunmen kidnapped and beheaded Mohammed Taha Mohammed Ahmed, editor of the pro-government, Khartoum-based daily Al-Wifaq. Taha Mohammed Ahmed in 2005 had published an article about the prophet Muhammad’s lineage, for which he was detained and questioned. The article’s publication raised the ire of Sudan’s religious establishment. A group linked to al-Qaeda later claimed responsibility for the killing, but no arrests had been made by year’s end. Several major private Khartoum-based dailies were censored or confiscated after reporting on the case. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Sudanese journalists said that the censored publications also carried articles about local demonstrations against rising fuel and sugar prices and the slow pace of democratic reform. Several television and print journalists were also detained, beaten, and harassed during coverage of demonstrations in the summer over the rising prices as well as antigovernment protests. Another major issue for Sudan in 2006 was control of journalists—especially foreign journalists—covering Darfur. Government spokesmen have regularly attacked the foreign media’s coverage of Darfur as anti-Sudanese. In August, government forces in Darfur detained U.S. reporter Paul Salopek, on assignment for National Geographic magazine, as well as his translator and driver and eventually charged the three with espionage. They spent a month in detention before al-Bashir ordered their release in September.
Many daily newspapers operate in Sudan—though none are currently able to function regularly in Darfur—and most experienced intense scrutiny from the government during the year. Still, some of Sudan’s private newspapers are critical, and many employ columnists that regularly question and attack al-Bashir’s policies. In 2006, newspapers published articles about cases of torture and abuse at the hands of government forces and identified officials alleged to be responsible. The al-Bashir administration in Khartoum runs one Arabic- and one English-language newspaper and also dominates the broadcast media, the main source of information for much of Sudan’s population. Formal censorship is mandatory for television broadcasts, ensuring that the news reflects the government’s viewpoint. But Arabic satellite channels like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya are popular in Sudan and are increasingly relied upon as an alternative to the pro-government domestic television and radio stations. The government exerts pressure on international correspondents for such foreign broadcasters; in 2006, Al-Arabiya’s Khartoum reporter quit after the NPC harassed him and he was repeatedly called in by security agents for questioning. The government is also trying to limit the broadcast reach of the UN radio station in Sudan, which operates as part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
Internet penetration in Sudan is among the highest in sub-Saharan Africa—though still low by global standards—with 7.6 percent of the population accessing the internet in 2006, almost exclusively in urban areas. The government has not traditionally displayed much interest in censoring this new medium, but with the high rate of expansion in internet consumption in Khartoum and other major cities, the government was reported to have monitored e-mail communications and internet activity in 2006. The National Telecommunication Corporation also censored websites during the year, though it claimed that most were of a pornographic nature and that none were shut down for political reasons.
Press freedom conditions in autonomous southern Sudan continued to improve in 2006, in contrast with areas controlled directly by Khartoum. Journalists in the south are not as restricted as those in the north and have more leeway to criticize government policies. While there were no reports of direct censorship by the government in the south in 2006, local provincial governments did interfere with the independence of the press. One such case occurred in July, when the local radio station Liberty FM was forced to shut down after a caller on a talk show voiced criticisms of the provincial government.