Press freedom in Sudan is rapidly deteriorating, with confiscation of newspapers by the security agency becoming a norm.
The scope of violations committed against publications and journalists by the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) is widening by the day.
Since early May, the NISS has confiscated more than 14 editions of different newspapers in Sudan, suspended more than 13 journalists from writing in newspapers, and identified about 20 taboo topics not to be tackled by the press.
Every confiscated newspaper results in losses of between 10,000 and 15,000 Sudanese pounds (between about $4000-$6000) in printing costs. This is not including other operational expenses, such as rent, wages, travel expenses, and advertisement costs.
These papers also suffer a moral blow and lose readers' confidence of due to repeated no-shows on newsstands. They are unable to explain the reasons because the government bans them from discussing censorship.
By confiscating newspapers, the security agency aims to cause a significant financial loss and force the newspapers either to go out of business or to comply with its instructions.
On May 15, the NISS arrested editor-in-chief of the suspended Al-Adwa newspaper Faisal Mohamed Saleh for the second time that month. A police complaint was issued against him under Article 94 of the Criminal Code on resisting a law enforcement officer.
Saleh was released on bail pending further investigations, with a hearing set for June 11. Conviction under Article 94 is punishable by about one month of jail time and a fine.
Between April 25 and May 11, Saleh was told to appear at the security agency daily because of a statement he made on Al-Jazeera TV in which he criticised a speech by President Omar al-Bashir as escalating the language of war.
"The security personnel came to my house and my office more than once during the day and in the evening on Wednesday, April 25,” Saleh said. “I wasn't at home.
“Around 8pm, they came to my house again and told me I was wanted by the security agency. I joined them outside and went with them to the premises of the security agency.
“I was questioned about my comments regarding the president's speech in Al-Abyad City ... There was not much to say since they already had the news bulletin recorded and I also repeated my comments to them.
“They told me that such comments were not fit for media and it was better to communicate them to the authorities by other means and that I should be conservative when speaking to foreign media outlets and should not talk about certain issues except to local media. They also told me that I used some inappropriate words ...
“The interrogation lasted until midnight. I was asked to come back on Thursday morning to continue the interrogation which they insisted on calling a 'dialogue.'"
Saleh continued to report daily to the security agency premises in Khartoum North for 11 days. On the 12th day, however, he decided not to go to the security agency premises and posted his intention on local websites. The next morning, he was arrested.
As well as the direct censorship exercised by the NISS on newspapers and other publications, the NISS instructs management boards and editors-in-chief of newspapers to suspend certain journalists from writing.
Should a newspaper not comply with an NISS orders, it faces confiscation and possible suspension. Editors-in-chief report that they have been instructed by the security agency not to publish the work of certain journalists or their news outlets would be closed.
Banning journalists from writing is a weapon used by the security agency to deprive journalists of their livelihoods and income in order to coerce them into obedience.
The security agency sends a daily letter to editors-in-chief in Khartoum containing a list of taboo topics.
"The list of red lines is long and renewed on a daily basis," said journalist Idris al-Douma, the managing editor of Al-Jarida. "We usually abide by the directives of the security agency and have never disregarded them. Yet, the security agency still disrupts the printing of the newspaper.
“We do not know the reason behind such deliberate disruption. We believe that Al-Jarida newspaper is targeted by the security agency but we do not know why."
Security agency censorship takes different forms, including orders communicated to the editor-in-chief or the managing editor over the phone not to publish on certain topics that the agency considers taboo.
"I received an evening phone call from the Intelligence and Security Services on Saturday, May 5," said Madiha Abdullah, editor-in-chief of the critical Al-Midan.
"They told me over the phone the newspaper must not contain articles that criticise the performance of the security agency, the armed forces, or the police. And it must not criticise the president, and that the newspaper must not discuss the situation of civil liberties and press freedoms, problems in the government of the state of Gedaref [in Eastern Sudan] or the dismissal of the governor."
"Previously, they had warned against criticising the performance of the army and the violations committed at the hands of the police, uniformed forces, and the security agency, along with a list of taboo subjects.
“However, we usually do not abide by these directives, as they are too numerous and restrictive and violate our right to publish and the people's right to access information."
[Abridged from Committee to Protect Journalists. Abdelgadir Mohammed Abdelgadir is a Sudanese freelance journalist and press freedom advocate based in Khartoum.]