Sudan Shuts Down Social Media to Undermine Protests

Since December, Sudanese government authorities have been blocking access to social media, a key tool for organizing anti-government protests.

Though triggered by an economic crisis due to rising bread prices and other essential commodities, protests are now calling for the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, to step down.

Since coming to power in 1989 through a military coup, al-Bashir has continuously suppressed opposition through censorship and weaponized violence.

His rise to power marked the banning of most of the country’s news outlets, along with imprisoning political opponents, banning trade unions and political parties and dissolving the judiciary.

al-Bashir has also repeatedly fixed elections to his favor by making official results look like the Sudanese people voted overwhelmingly in favor, despite their dissatisfaction of his administration’s violent methods and inability to maintain a stable economy.

In 2009, the U.N. issued a warrant for his arrest for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and again in 2010 for the genocide of rebel uprisers in Darfur.

al-Bashir has mocked social media activists for attempting to change government policy through the internet.

“Changing the government or presidents cannot be done through Whatsapp or Facebook,” said al-Bashir, addressing his supporters. “It can only be done through elections.”

This is not the first time the Sudanese government has suppressed communications. News outlets have been regularly censored since a coup in 1989. But the internet and social media were largely untouched until 2012, when the government started to censor internet content shortly after anti-government protests erupted in Khartoum.

In September 2013, a complete internet blackout was put in place for nearly 24 hours following violent rioting in response to lifting government fuel subsidies.

“We are people who don’t accept injustice,” an unnamed social media activist told AFP. “And what happened to protesters, whether it was tear gas or live bullets fired at them, is clear injustice.”

Though the social media block is on a smaller scale, it is nevertheless detrimental to organizing and bringing attention to future protests since activists and protesters use Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp to communicate and document their activity.

The protests themselves consist of near-daily demonstrations in Khartoum and other major cities, extending as far as small villages. Though the demonstrations are peaceful, security forces clash violently with protesters, many of whom are young people and students, and result in civilian casualties.

In addition, security forces target hospitals and medical personnel in an attempt to prevent protesters from continuing to protest.

As of last week, an opposition-linked doctor’s syndicate put the death toll at 57, while the official government report putting it at 31.

Users of Zain, MTN and Sudani, the three telecommunication companies in Sudan, have said social media is only accessible through a virtual private network (VPN).

Hashtags in Arabic such as #sudan_cities_revolt and the English #SudanRevolts have circulated from both within Sudan and abroad.

Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International continue to document the protests and report on the death toll.

Magdi El Ghizouli, a Sudan analyst at the Rift Valley Institute, says that the government’s attempts to stifle dissent online have been “to no avail.”

“In many ways, these measures have only reinforced public anger at the government’s securitization of the internet,” he said.

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