Recent Arrest of Journalist in Sudan Provides Insight into Disintegrating Press Freedom

The recent arrest of Sudanese journalist Amal Habani provides the latest symptom of a repressed media in Sudan.

Habani was arrested this past November when she was accused by a National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) agent of undermining his ability to do his job. Habani had been taking photographs with her phone while covering a trial concerning a group of human rights activists.

According to Africa News, Habani claimed that upon arrest, she was “manhandled and detained by the security agents who had no identification and had accused her of taking pictures of them during the trial.” Habani goes further, saying “A NISS officer slapped me on my face, and I was released after two hours of detention.”

The award-winning journalist had been given a fine of 10,000 Sudanese pounds (US$1,499) or four months in jail for obstructing public officials. Despite generous offers from colleagues to pay the bail, Habani chose to serve the four-month sentence. According to Arab News, Habani’s lawyer, Ahmed Elshukri, planned on filing an appeal against the court’s order.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Habani has been harassed by police and the NISS several times in the past. In 2013, Habani was arrested at a funeral and the year prior, the NISS attempted to ban her from traveling and writing.

Habani’s case is not uncommon in Sudan. The NISS has a reputation for censoring the Sudanese media by either shutting down newspapers, seizing copies of stories or arresting journalists.

“The NISS can sometimes go to extremes, such as trying journalists in state security courts under charges potentially carrying the death penalty, but the most common method is for them to simply seize the physical copies of a newspaper’s daily edition,” said Justin Shilad, Research Associate of the Middle East and North Africa for the CPJ.

Various publications have faced NISS censorship tactics including Al-Jareeda, Al-Tayyar and Al-Watan. As stated by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the NISS seized every print copy of Al-Watan’s October 14, 2017 paper without giving any formal reasoning. Shilad claims that such censorship “forces the paper to incur significant financial losses by printing a paper and then not letting them sell it.”

RSF also revealed that the editor-in-chief of Al-Watan was asked to avoid publishing any material  criticizing the government’s decision to increase fuel and electricity prices.

Incidentally, the trial that Amal Habani had covered involved human rights activists protesting the rising costs of fuel and electricity in Sudan. Prices have increased 75 percent since September of 2013 and have resulted in massive demonstrations.

Several organizations have condemned the NISS censorship tactics, including Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International, from which Habani received the Amnesty prize for reporting on human rights in Sudan.

Sudan currently ranks 174 out of 180 countries on the 2017 RSF World Press Freedom Index and is also labeled as “not free” according to Freedom House.

Although the Sudanese government continues to crack down on any criticism in the media, Shilad expressed faith in the drive of Sudanese journalists.

“Sudanese journalists are tenacious and devoted to their craft,” Shilad said. “They’ve become adept at walking the line between reporting on corruption and others news potentially embarrassing to the government.”

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