Sudan: Press Freedom under threat

Mekki Elmograbil

Press Writer on African Affairs


Although Sudan’s ranking in press freedom index by Reporters without Borders RSF has been promoted from 175 to 159 for the year 2020, observers and activists are worried that Sudan is losing this improvement and to get worse again.

One of the major reasons is the absence of a trade union or even a professional association to defend journalists’ rights and to organize its members.

Four to five small bodies now are claiming this role, none of them has been legitimatized by authorities as a journalists’ union or even a steering committee to organize elections.

Sudanese Journalists Network which participated in the revolutionary change and was the parallel union to the Sudanese Journalists Union (SJU) during Bashir’s regime split into two main groups and some of its supporters have joined other bodies out of the network.

Unfortunately, the original group considers the call to the elections not timely while the other group established a committee for restoration of the journalists’ union.

The third body is the Media Practitioners or Journalists’ Association which its members mainly work for big media outlets and organizations.

The fourth body calls themselves the Legitimate Journalists Union because they claim the union that dissolved by Bashir in 1989.

The biggest problem appears when some members of the four bodies exchange accusations of serving political parties based on the political background of the leaders and key members of the bodies.

Understanding the Situation in Sudan: Why did trade unions become part of the political game?

Despite the large number of political parties during Bashir’s regime, there were no equal opportunities between opposition and parties allying with the ruling NCP.

Parallel trade unions and networks became the best choice for opposition parties to gain more power in their fight against Bashir’s regime. For this very reason, it was very hard to distinguish between political activists and trade unionists in the fight for freedom and democracy.

In December 2019, the Sudanese transitional government dissolved all trade unions including SJU without appointing a committee to organize or monitor a new election. SJU office was occupied by military forces. The International Federation for Journalists (IFJ) and the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ) described the dissolution of SJU as a gross human rights violation.

In July 2020, the deterioration of press freedom situation became very clear when the military side of the government threatened journalists with lawsuits under a law that amended by the civilian side. International organizations that had appreciated the situation after the revolutionary change started to send alerts on Sudan again, Human Rights Watch published a report on the threats.

It was clear that the absence of a union that defends journalists’ rights and the differences between groups gave dictatorship an opportunity to come back. When there was one enemy, human rights advocates were united but when Bashir’s regime fall down on 11th April 2019, differences between political activists dismantled their unity.

No way to bring back the previous leadership of SJU that dissolved after the change. Also, it is very hard for the five groups to gather under one union. The political deep division has weakened the unity of journalists; as a result, there is no union representing them.

A new initiative to unify the four groups is led by a veteran journalist and press writer, Mahjoub Salih 92 years old and a winner of the golden pen award. Unfortunately, this initiative became – in the eyes of some journalists – the fifth group under the control of political activists.

The initiative didn’t recognize the previous union which is actively participating within regional and international unions and organizations. SJU maintained its international position because the newcomers refused or failed to organize elections and want their legitimacy to be “de facto” with no election.

Press Freedom Violations and International Reports.

Press freedom violations in the new era continued and new tools to threaten journalists appeared; to be branded as an element of the previous regime could be the easiest way for government supporters to attack individual journalists or media houses.

A new governmental committee established under the name “committee of dismantling 1989 – Bashir’s – regime” was given a wide range of authorities and jurisdictions with no constitutional court to review its judgments. Publishers and press writers faced different kinds of punishments of freezing assets and bank accounts and accusations of corruption with no chance to appear in front of ordinary courts to defend themselves.

Freedom House based in Washington DC published a report on Sudan under the title “Key Developments, June 2019 – May 2020”. The report accused the government of systemic intimidation and harassment to online media and activists.

Again, the authorities started to shut down media houses. In January 2020, International Press Institute (IPI) condemned the closure of four media outlets in Sudan; two newspapers and two TV stations, one of the papers established in 1945, “Recent actions of transitional government contradict promises on press freedom”, IPI report said.

Not only print and TV media but the online media is also facing stricter punishments under the new law. CPJ published “Sudan tightens cybercrime law as army pursues fake news”.

Two major mistakes made by the transitional government in Sudan
The government didn’t appoint a steering committee to organize elections after the dissolution of SJU. Actually, the right decision was to dissolve the executive committee not the union itself.

The dissolution of all trade unions and professional associations in Sudan was justified by a promise of revising trade union laws and preparing for new elections. It is almost two years with no sign that the Sudanese government wants to do a single step towards elections.

The African Regional Organization of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC-Africa) strongly condemned the transitional government in Sudan on dissolving trade unions.

Regarding journalists’ associations and societies there was another mistake; The dissolution of the professional associations because they were under the umbrella of the SJU such as the women journalists’ association, photographers’ association and others was a big mistake.

These ten associations were established independently and run by respected elected leaders with no political polarization. It was better to allow them to continue in order to re-organize themselves within a new umbrella and to fill the gap in case that the transitional government needs more time to reach new laws to establish new unions.

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