Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The Interim National Constitution provides for freedom of thought, expression, and of the press “as regulated by law,” but the government heavily restricted these rights.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: Individuals who criticized the government publicly or privately were subject to reprisal, including arrest. The government attempted to impede such criticism and monitored political meetings and the press. In July the government arrested Imam Yousif Abdullah Abaker following an Eid al-Fitr sermon in Aljenina in West Darfur, during which he criticized the central and state governments and blamed them for deaths in Darfur and throughout the country. He was reportedly transferred to Khartoum and sentenced to nine months in prison.
In March, NISS summoned and interrogated Rokaya al-Zaki, a journalist at al-Ray al-Aam newspaper, after publication of a financial corruption article relating to the Workers’ Union. NISS confiscated the independent daily al-Jarida’s press runs for unknown reasons on May 9, 10, 12, 13, and 16. In addition, journalists reported that security officers interrogated and harassed them. In November there were almost daily suspensions or confiscations of newspapers and radio stations by NISS for reporting on the nationwide civil disobedience that took place November 27 to 29 following the announcement of new austerity measures. Similarly, NISS seized newspapers on an almost daily basis throughout December, amid calls for large-scale protests. For example, NISS seized copies of daily al-Tayyar at least five times in December.
Throughout the year, more than 16 journalists were arrested, nine were subjected to legal actions against them by the government, at least 14 were summoned by NISS, and more than seven were suspended at some point. Throughout the year NISS detained more than 41 opposition party members, in some cases following meetings or symposiums during which attendees discussed politics.
The government also curtailed public discussion of a religious nature if proselytization was suspected and monitored religious sermons and teachings (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).
Press and Media Freedoms: The Interim National Constitution provides for freedom of the press, but authorities prevented newspapers from reporting on problems deemed sensitive. In December 2015 President Bashir 2015 criticized his government’s inability to “control the media” in an address to the ruling NCP parliamentary caucus. He warned that he personally would take “decisive measures.” Those measures included regular and direct prepublication censorship, confiscation of publications, legal proceedings, and denial of state advertising. Confiscation in particular inflicted financial damage on newspapers already under financial strain due to low circulation. The government verbally ordered newspapers throughout the year about “red line” topics on which the press could not report. Such topics included corruption, university protests, the national dialogue, political negotiations in Addis Ababa, the conflict in South Sudan, the doctors’ nationwide strike, the weak economy and declining value of the Sudanese pound, power outages, outbreak of cholera, the security services, and government action in conflict areas. Authorities ordered the confiscation of newspapers that reported on these topics.
The government influenced radio and television reporting through the granting or denial of permits, as well as offering or withholding government payments for advertisements, based on how closely affiliated they were with the government.
On November 27, authorities issued a cease-and-desist order, closing indefinitely the privately owned satellite television channel Omdurman TV, which until then had seemed to be progovernment. According to its owner, the move likely came after a talk show the station aired in which ruling NCP party members discussed corruption as one of the possible factors in the country’s continuing budget crisis. The government, however, claimed that the channel’s license had expired.
The government controlled the media through the National Council for Press and Publications (NCPP), which administered mandatory professional examinations for journalists and oversaw the selection of editors. The NCPP had authority to ban journalists temporarily or indefinitely. In November the NCPP estimated there were 4,000 registered journalists in the country, a significant decrease from 7,000 in 2015. The council stated that registration of journalists was now handled primarily by the Sudanese Journalists Union, which may have more journalists on file with their organization. Of the 4,000 registered journalists in the country, approximately 600 were actively employed.
During the year authorities lifted restrictions on one journalist who had been temporarily banned from writing. As of December 2015, seven other journalists remained banned from writing, including four journalists for al-Jarida newspaper. As of November NISS had banned at least 16 journalists from publishing articles or suspended their newspapers from publishing.
Violence and Harassment: The government, including NISS, continued to arrest, harass, intimidate, and abuse journalists and vocal critics of the government. NISS required journalists to provide personal information, such as details on their tribe, political affiliation, and family.
According to Journalists for Human Rights, in early November NISS beat and arrested Mohamed al-Amin Abdel-Aziz, a journalist collaborator of al-Jarida newspaper. Also in early November, NISS allegedly beat and detained journalist Amal Habani after she left the premises of a courtroom in Khartoum where she attended the trial of several civil society activists. In December, NISS agents also arrested and allegedly beat a number of journalists, amid calls for large-scale protests against the lifting of fuel subsidies.
In late December 2015, lawyers referred to the Constitutional Court the case of Osman Mirghani, editor and chief of al-Tayar newspaper, who was attacked by unknown assailants in 2014 and whose newspaper’s publication had been suspended as of December 2015. Some human rights advocates suspected the government instructed the court to delay its ruling. On May 1, the Constitutional Court issued an order allowing al-Tayar to resume publishing after more than four months of “indefinite suspension” by NISS (without compensation) and following a hunger strike/protest by the staff of the newspaper, in which other journalists and activists also participated. After its reopening, NISS continued to intimidate and harass al-Tayar, and confiscated print runs of the daily on a regular basis.
On July 27, al-Tagheer newspaper suspended its own publishing indefinitely following multiple consecutive confiscations.
On September 14, the Press and Publications Council ordered suspension of four newspapers (Ilaf, al-Mostagil, al-Watan, and Awal al-Nahar).
In January 2015 the Ministry of Culture revoked the Sudanese Writers Union’s registration. The union had been registered since 2006 to hold intellectual forums, cultural nights, movie screenings, and other activities. The union filed a case against the Ministry of Culture. In October 2015 a judge ruled in favor of the union, disallowing justifications used by the ministry to close the group. In late 2015, however, the court reversed its judgment. The group was reportedly able to reregister on December 1.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government continued to practice direct prepublication and prebroadcast censorship of all forms of media. The government increased confiscations during the May aftermath of April protests by students that were sparked by reports of the government’s alleged sale of the University of Khartoum to foreign investors. During the protests two students were killed, many were injured, and many were arrested. Confiscations of print runs was the censorship method most frequently used by NISS, having utility in terms of censoring material, incentivizing future self-censorship, and causing high financial losses to the publisher that could lead to the newspaper’s eventual closure.
In 2014 the government announced it would suspend exceptional measures, including prepublication censorship, imposed by NISS on print media; however, such censorship continued unabated. According to the National Council for Press and Publications, in November 2015 a court specializing in media issues and “newspaper irregularities” was established under the existing Press and Publications Act. By August the Press and Publications Court was functional.
The government confiscated print runs of at least 12 newspapers on at least 49 occasions between March and November, mostly in May, following the widespread April student protests and in November following nationwide civil disobedience strikes and protests in response to government austerity measures. For example, in one week from November 25 to December 2, NISS confiscated 16 print runs of nine newspapers.
On November 30, the Sudan Journalist Network organized a one-day strike to protest the confiscations of print runs of five dailies (al-Tayar, al-Watan, al-Jarida, al-Yom al-Taali, and al-Ayaam) for four days in a row, from November 28 to December 1. Local journalists suspected the seizures were for publishing articles critical of the subsidy cuts made by the government on November 3. More than 100 independent journalists participated in the strike.
National Security: The Press and Publications Act allows for restrictions on the press in the interest of national security and public order. It contains loosely defined provisions for bans for encouraging ethnic and religious disturbances and incitement of violence. The act holds editors in chief criminally liable for all content published in their newspapers. The criminal code, National Security Act, and emergency laws were regularly used to bring charges against the press.
NISS initiated and continued legal action against journalists for stories critical of the government and security services.
In February, Ibrahim Baggal, a digital journalist and online activist, was arrested for criticizing the governor of North Darfur in a Facebook post and charged under the Information Technology (IT) Crime Act. Baggal spent 55 days in detention before his release on bail, but he was reportedly detained again days later and held for another week, for seemingly arbitrary reasons. The public prosecutor later dropped some of the charges against Baggal, namely undermining the constitutional order, waging war against the state, and contempt for authority; however, Baggal still faced charges of spreading false information, disclosing military information, and breaching public safety.
In Khartoum the state health minister also took legal action against al-Watan after the newspaper accused the minister of misappropriating public funds to enhance al-Zaitona Hospital, one of three hospitals privately owned by the state health minister.
The government regulated licensing of telecommunications companies through the National Telecommunications Corporation. The agency blocked some websites and most proxy servers judged offensive to public morality, such as those purveying pornography. There were few restrictions on access to information websites, but authorities sporadically blocked access to YouTube and “negative” media sites. According to the International Telecommunication Union, approximately 27 percent of individuals used the internet in 2015, an increase from 25 percent in 2014.
Reporters without Borders reported NISS established a cyber-jihadist unit with a mandate to crack down on “internet dissidents” in 2011. According to outside reports, the unit continued to monitor social media accounts and electronic communications, especially of those believed to be regime critics.
Freedom House continued to rank the country as “not free” in its annual internet freedom report. According to the report, arrests and prosecutions under the IT Crime Act grew during the year, reflecting a tactical shift in the government’s strategy to limit internet freedom. The report noted that many journalists writing for online platforms published anonymously to avoid prosecution, while ordinary internet users in the country had become more inclined to self-censor to avoid government surveillance and arbitrary legal consequences.
In November 2015, for example, Seraj al-Naeem, the founder of the online news outlet Awtar al-Aseel, was arrested and charged with libel under the IT Crime Act for sending a WhatsApp message that accused a doctor of medical malpractice. Al-Naeem was detained for hours and released on bail, but not before he was asked to surrender his smartphone to the police as evidence. Al-Naeem was subsequently charged for inquiring about the legality of surrendering his phone. He was acquitted of all charges in May.
In November an activist was broadcasting live on Facebook, showing empty streets in downtown Khartoum as evidence of a successful civil disobedience campaign when security services confronted and detained him for several days.
In January the administrator of a WhatsApp group for journalists was charged with libel under the IT Crime Act for a message that criticized the minister of health. He was detained and questioned for several hours along with the individual who sent the original message; both were subsequently released on bail and as of October still awaiting trial.
Cybercafes lacked privacy and were subject to intrusive government surveillance. In February, NISS and Ministry of Interior special cybercrime units raided 130 internet cafes in Khartoum in search of content threatening “public morals.”
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The government restricted academic freedom at cultural and academic institutions. It determined the curriculums and appointed the vice chancellors responsible for administration. It continued to arrest student activists and cancel or deny permits for some student events. Youth activists reported some universities discouraged students from participating in antigovernment rallies and showed favorable treatment towards NCP students. Some professors exercised self-censorship. Security forces used tear gas and other heavy-handed tactics against largely peaceful protests at universities or involving university students. The Public Order Police continued to monitor public gatherings and cultural events, often intimidating women and girls, who feared police would arrest them for “indecent” dress or actions.
Following widespread unrest on college campuses across the country in April, many universities indefinitely suspended student activities (political, cultural, and social) on university premises and required approval before events could be held.
On April 30, NISS prevented the Sudanese Journalists’ Network from holding a conference in Khartoum and provided no explanation. On September 13, NISS prevented the Sudanese Congress Party from holding a public event commemorating the third anniversary of the September 2013 protests, during which 185 to 200 protesters were killed.