2 February 2011

Authorities tighten controls on press after anti-government protests, referendum

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Although last month's Sudanese referendum was largely seen as a success, the authorities harassed, obstructed and censored local and international news media covering the vote, and are continuing their clampdown on free expression in the face of street protests that are rapidly spreading across the North African region, report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Last weekend, Sudanese authorities beat several journalists and detained at least eight while they were covering student protests against rising food and gas prices in Khartoum - protests in large part inspired by recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. At least two of the journalists, Hamza Baloul and Ali Ahmad Haj al-Amin, remain in custody.

Meanwhile, security officers blocked distribution of the independent daily "Ajras al-Huriya" on 20 January and 31 January, report CPJ and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). According to CPJ, deputy editor Fayez al-Silaik said the paper was targeted the second time for covering the protests. "The confiscation of the paper reflects a state of panic and fear that the Sudanese government is experiencing because of the winds of change that are sweeping through the region, and these totalitarian regimes see in the press their first enemy," he said.

CPJ also documented several press freedom violations during the 9-15 January referendum, in which South Sudanese overwhelming voted for independence.

For example, on 10 January, BBC journalist Rasha Kashan and studio manager Atef Eladi were interrogated and detained twice for four hours in total about their live radio programme "BBC Xtra", says CPJ. The BBC decided to evacuate its staff from Khartoum following the detention, reports CPJ.

Sudanese authorities also prevented international media from interviewing opposition leaders during the referendum, says CPJ. On 10 January, security agents prevented U.S. government-funded Al-Hurra television from conducting an interview with opposition leader Mubarak al-Fadil by cutting the satellite link while al-Fadil was being interviewed. "They don't want us to speak about the consequences and the dangers ahead after South Sudan breaks away," al-Fadil told "Sudan Tribune".

On 11 January, authorities in the eastern city of Port Sudan closed the weekly "Sawt Barout" after it published an article calling for independence for east Sudan. The author, Abdelgadir Bakash, and editor, Abouisha Kazem, were detained on 10 January. The state court in Kharthoum quashed the case on 1 February and released them, reports the Eastern Africa Journalists Association (EAJA).

"Sudanese authorities have mastered the infamous art of persecuting the messenger," said CPJ. "We call on Khartoum to allow local and international access to information in this critical time for the country."

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