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Literacy was first brought to Sudan by the practitioners of monotheistic religion. In Northern Sudan it began with Koranic education: reading and writing were taught in the Khalawi, the Islamic religious schools, as a prerequisite for recitation and worship. The earliest schools in Southern Sudan were established by Christian missionaries, and even in the late 20th century the transcribing of vernacular minority languages was being carried out with the primary purpose of Bible translation.
The spread of literacy in the 19th century was immediately followed by the use of circulars in the propaganda of warfare. The supporters of the Mahdist Revolution in 1881 sent out leaflets across Northern Sudan; these were read, recopied and distributed to the remotest parts of the country to rally people to the uprising against the Turco-Egyptian authorities. They were countered by the publications of the Ulema (jurists) who favoured the status quo, but succeeded to a remarkable extent in arousing public interest.
Modern journalism was established in Sudan soon after the defeat of the Mahdist state in 1989 by British and Egyptian invasion forces. It grew up alongside modern education, and its political role was evident from the start. Printed pamphlets were circulated in the run-up to the attempted nationalist revolution in 1924 by the Sudanese Union and the White Flag League. The colonial authorities quelled the revolt and the activities of the embryonic press came under close scrutiny. Controls were introduced which restricted financing and licensing of journals, which could be banned or fined for contravening the laws on sedition and defamation. The government also obliged any journal to apply to the authorities to approve the editor-in-chief.
The emerging Sudanese nationalist movement demanded freedom of expression and a free press. Starting as a trickle of publications in the 1920s, mainly through artistic and cultural associations, and learning from the experience of 1924, a more sophisticated journalism arose in the 1930s. It was closely involved in the development of political organisations, including the creation of Graduates' Clubs, and the press sometimes constituted a more effective voice for public discontent than the political parties. This became evident in the 1948 boycott of the Legislative Assembly, which marked a significant step in the evolution of Sudanese nationalism and the struggle for independence.
Although many of the colonial laws were amended after the country gained its independence in 1956, a number survived up to the 1985 civilian government. They included the requirement for an official licence to publish a journal, including the journals of political parties, and that the authorities' consent must be obtained before an editor-in-chief is appointed. The military dictatorships of General Abboud (1958-64) and General Nimeiri (1969-85) sought limitations to freedom of expression in the media for their own purposes.
Publications in the Arabic language, the dominant mode of communication, were always hardest-hit. The culture of independent criticism in Arabic was suffocated, because it was seen as posing the strongest threat to whatever government was in power. One English-medium publication, launched in the mid-1970s, was allowed a greater measure of freedom because it was ostensibly aimed at opinion outside the country. The magazine, Sudanow, was under the control of the Ministry of Culture and Information, and began as a bland promotional device. Under skillful editors in the late 1970s and early 1980s it attracted some of the most outspoken Sudanese journalists and became a forum for debate which was not permissible elsewhere. It served the regime by creating an impression of tolerance which was not found in the Arabic-language press, and acting as a safety-valve for the English-speaking Sudanese intelligentsia.
So long as it avoided direct criticism of the presidency, and chose its words with care, it was possible to tackle sensitive issues which were out of bounds to the rest of the media. However, with the imposition of Shari'a law in 1983 and the dismissal of independent-minded editors, the magazine became an intimidated shadow of its former self, and an apologist for
NIF-inspired policies as centralised control was imposed more rigidly.
Opposition complaints about the inhibiting nature of the press laws were largely justified, although there is scope for debate about the retention of the sections of criminal law relating to defamation. Under the new-found freedom of the 1985 democratic era, the National Islamic Front seized the opportunity to publish a number of supposedly independent newspapers and magazines, using its financial clout to swamp the market. It could be argued that without some mechanism to rein in its wilder accusations about the front's opponents, the NIF would have singlehandedly destroyed press freedom by abusing it. In addition to virulent attacks on its political opponents, the NIF and its predecessors used the medium to spread antagonism against foreign aid agencies and to stoke the fires of war. In the latter task, however, it was
WAR AND CENSORSHIP
Sudan has been embroiled in civil war for most of the forty years that it has been independent - from 1955 to 1972, and 1983 to the present. This has inevitably had an impact on media freedom, and on the mentality of media workers. In times of war, it is commonplace for news organisations to adhere to the government line, showing the government in a positive light and the "enemy" in a negative light. The freedom of the press always suffers during times of war, regardless of whether it is operating in a "free" commercial market or a guided system under government control. The supposedly "free" press tends to behave in the same way as a manipulated press in its coverage of the conflict; deliberate coercion is not always necessary.
Bona Malwal, a prominent Southern Sudanese writer and politician, edits the UK-based Sudan Democratic Gazette and before the advent of the Bashir regime was editor of the Sudan Times in Khartoum. He commented on the role of the press in the civil war in the book "War Wounds, published by Panos in 1988. His article "The Unreported War" examined the formal and informal restraints on the Sudanese media in reporting the war.
During the first democratic period, 1964-69, the press generally failed to tell the truth about the war in the South. The two Arabic-language newspapers that did offer accounts different from the official version were gagged by the democratically elected government. The massacre of hundreds of civilians at Wau went unreported until it was exposed by Al-Ayam newspaper and by Bona Malwal.
In "The Unreported War", Bona Malwal wrote: "The constraints the government is looking for would not be constraints for the Arabic media because they are already constrained, in that they feel they are part of the war, on the government side. They even go beyond the government in their advocacy of war." The comment can be regarded as the author's personal opinion rather than an objective study, but it is a reasonably accurate reflection of the attitudes and practice of the supposedly independent northern Sudanese media at the time.
As the Southern Sudanese poet and journalist Sirr Anai Kelueljang has also noted, journalists in Northern Sudan, regardless of their political affiliation, became participants in the conflict. They felt themselves to be part of the ruling group whose authority and legitimacy was challenged by the SPLA. Liberal and leftist writers and broadcasters were generally as adamant as their conservative counterparts in condemning the rebel forces. This behaviour mirrored the Sudan Communist Party's public donation to the war effort and participation in the celebration of the retaking of Kurmuk and Geissan, the two northern towns briefly taken by the SPLA in 1988.
The Press under Democratic Rule
Cultural and commercial considerations aside, the press enjoyed considerable freedom in the brief period between dictatorships, from the Popular Uprising of 6th April 1985 to the overthrow of the Sadiq al-Mahdi government on 30th June 1989. After sixteen years of increasingly stale, government-controlled journalism under the Nimeiri regime, there was scope for a range of new and revived publications which could begin to express the diversity of opinion in the country.
At least 30 new titles appeared on the news-stands. Two long-established newspapers, Al-Ayam (founded 1953) and Al-Sahafa, which had been taken over by the Nimeiri regime, regained their independence. Voluntary organisations, professional associations and trades unions published dozens of journals, and titles devoted to arts and sport proliferated. Imported magazines were no longer censored when articles critical of Sudan appeared, and even government publications such as Sudanow seemed to gain in confidence.
Some titles were independent, but many others were financed or backed by one or other of the political parties which were now able to operate openly. More or less independent were weekly journals including: Al-Adwa'a, Al-Jaridah, Halamantish, Akhir al-Anba'a, Al-Telegraf, Al-Akhbar, Al-Nihar and Al-Ashiqa. Two regional newspapers, Kordofan and Al-Gezira, were also launched. The newspapers and journals claiming to be independent but with known politcal backing were Al-Siyassa (Umma, from 1985 onwards), Al-Khartoum (Democratic Unionist Party, 1988), Al-Sudani, Al-Usbu' and Alwan (all National Islamic Front, 1986).
Openly published by the parties were: Al-Ittihadi (DUP), Sawt al-Umma (Umma), Al-Medan (Communist), Al-Rayah and Al-Massirah (NIF), Al-Hadaf (pro-Iraqi Ba'athist), Badil (Nasserist Socialist), Al-Monadil (pro-Syria Ba'athist), and Al-Ishtraki (Islamic Socialist).
The bulk of the journals represented Northern Muslim opinion, but the English language dailies Sudan Times and Horizon had a largely Southern Sudanese voice, and two weeklies, including Sabah Al-Ahad (Sunday Morning) were published by the Christian Brotherhood.
In the absence of outright censorship, other factors became important in the struggle for dominance of the newspaper market. In the straitened economic climate the supply of newsprint, the raw material for making newspapers, was limited, and it was frequently under the control of pro-NIF businessmen. Pressure from right wing politicians for new Press laws continued, even under civilian rule, and Sadiq al-Mahdi made several unsuccessful efforts to introduce a Press and Publications Act necessitating - among other things - the government registration of all journalists.
Journalists themselves responded by forming the Sudanese Journalists' Union, and 731 assembled on 15 March 1989 to elect 15 members to the Journalists' Council. Over 1,500 joined the union, and a further 700 joined the League of Sports Reporters.
The NIF clamps down
When the NIF, frustrated by the limits on its influence in the democratic parliament, seized power in the 30 June 1989 coup d'etat, it took immediate action against the press. The Sudanese Journalists' Union and most publications were banned. Tight restrictions were placed on those that remained, and the properties of party press operations were confiscated. More than 1,200 journalists lost their jobs without compensation. The foreign press was subjected to censorship and its reporters given little or no access to the country.
At first, the Armed Forces daily, Al-Quwwat al-Musallaha, was the only newspaper allowed to publish. Later, two government-sponsored newspapers were issued. Al-Sudan al-Hadith and Al-Inqaz al-Watani promulgated the views of the "National Salvation Revolution", staffed by NIF loyalists or journalists too timid to cause trouble. The use of non-NIF staff helped, for a while, to maintain the pretence that this was a purely military regime, and to obscure the NIF's key role in its political ideology.
Less compliant journalists found that they had been blacklisted, and were subjected to arbitrary arrest, harassment and sometimes torture. The security forces were quick to detain journalists such as Tijani al-Tayeb, editor-in-chief of Al-Medan; Yousif al-Shanbali, Secretary-General of the Sudanese Journalists' Union; Mohamed Osman Abu Shok; Osman Abu Shamma, Al-Fatih al-Mardi, Mahjoub Osman, Abu Bakr al-Amin, Samir Girgis, Abdallah al-Safi, Abdel-Moneim Awad al-Rayah, Alfred Taban, Faisal Mohamed Salih, Ibrahim Ali Ibrahim, Abdel-Gadir al-Samani, Mohamed Sidahmed Atiq, Sharaf al-Din Yassin, Mohamed Ali Bagadi, Nur al-Din Medani and Mohamed Abdel-Seed. Once they were set free, they were either obliged to curtail their activities or leave the country.
Human rights organisations including Article 19 have detailed the frequent detentions and relayed the first-hand accounts of Sharaf al-Din Yassin and Mohamed Osman Abu Shok, who were tortured in the regime's "ghost houses". The initial policy of long-term detention eventually changed to one of repeated arrest and interrogation for short periods, making it more difficult for outside organisations to keep track of who was being held at any one time.
Not all those arrested were initially anti-NIF. As disillusion with the corruption of the new regime set in, even apparent Islamist sympathisers who dared to criticise it were arrested, including the editor of Al-Sudani al-Dawliyya, Mahjoub Irwa, and reporter Mohamed Taha Mohamed Ahmed. The newspaper had obtained a licence because it was politically aligned with the views of the NIF, but touched a nerve by referring - albeit in veiled terms - to apparent abuses of privilege by individuals close to the leadership. This case, ironically, was taken up internationally by the human rights organisations which the NIF has attacked as "anti-Islamic".
Mahjoub Irwa had been involved with the NIF since his university days, and had been publisher of the original pro-NIF Al-Sudani newspaper from 1985 to 1986. He had even been arrested near the end of the Nimeiri era, in March 1985, for his loyalty to the NIF. Relaunched under the Bashir regime, Al-Sudani al-Dawliyya was banned in 1993, only 2 months after the Press and Publications Act. Mahjoub Irwa and Mohamed Taha Mohamed Ahmed were arrested by the security forces (without the knowledge of the newly formed Press and Publications Council) and accused of intelligence activities against the state. The editor's property was confiscated, and both men were held without due process of law. When Mahjoub Irwa - a relative of security adviser al-Fatih Irwa - was eventually released, he was given 120 million Sudanese pounds (about US$200,000) in compensation. When the NIF Students Union published this fact in their bulletin Al-Massirah, it too was banned.
The 1993 Press and Publications Act
Under pressure to regularise and justify its treatment of the media, the Bashir regime introduced the 1993 Press and Publications Act. Its 40 sections set out the overall control of the press by the Council of Press and Publications, whose 21 members, representatives of the press and government information bodies, are approved by the head of state, who appoints its Secretary-General. The Council issues licences on a year by year basis for all publications, information agencies and printing houses, on payment of a fee and presentation of details of financing and ownership. It is empowered to punish contraventions of the Act's provisions by suspension or cancellation of the licence.
Section 5 stipulates that press institutions must be formed as incorporations or companies with minimal capital of 5 million dinars (about US$100,000)
The tasks to be performed by journalists are closely defined, and each journalist must register with the Council and obtain a special identity card.
Africa Watch (HRW/Africa) 30 Aug 90 - Suppression of Information: Curbs on the
press, Attacks on Journalists, Writers and Academics