Home | News    Thursday 20 November 2003

Sudan suspends newspaper despite promise to stop media censorship

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KHARTOUM, Sudan, Nov. 20, 2003 (AP) — Journalists were hardly surprised this week when Al-Ayam became the latest newspaper to be suspended for publishing articles that allegedly threatened Sudan’s security, despite recent government pledges to stop media censorship.

What had the press abuzz this time was that the statement announcing the suspension of Al-Ayam on Monday included an unusual addendum: a warning that state security was also investigating a second unnamed publication ``that works to stir up hatred against the state.’’

Journalists took it as a vague warning to everyone to be careful.

Sudan has a history of suspending newspapers and detaining journalists. In August, President Omar el-Bashir declared that state censorship of newspapers would be lifted. But press restrictions have remained in place.

"I know the government has not really changed in its attitude toward the press,’’ said Alfred Taban, chairman of the board of directors of the English-language Khartoum Monitor, which has been suspended several times, most recently from May until October. "It’s true that there is less repression, but nevertheless it still has draconian laws.’’

Taban said some rumors suggest his paper is the one referred to in the government statement. Others say it may be the Islamist Alwan.

The United States has been pushing for a lifting of press restrictions. The embassy on Wednesday issued a statement criticizing the Al-Ayam suspension.

"Freedom of the press and freedom to express oneself is a fundamental human right,’’ the statement said. ``We urge the Al-Ayam be allowed to resume publication and hope that press censorship truly and finally becomes a matter of Sudan’s past.’’

Reporters Without Borders also called for the immediate renewal of Al-Ayam.

Najeib El-Kheir, state minister for foreign affairs, told The Associated Press that despite the suspension, the government remains committed to freedom of the press.

"I assure you that censorship is wrong, shutting down newspapers is wrong,’’ El-Kheir said. "(The Umma Party) is for the undiminished freedom of the press. We will try our best to ensure that in the future no newspapers will be shut down.’’

El-Kheir’s Umma Party joined the government partly on the promise of increased freedoms for Sudanese, and he said the coalition was trying its best to avoid censorship, "but sometimes things come out of the blue.’’

Taboos include reporting military movement, "promoting hatred’’ of the government, and disclosing the government’s negotiating position in ongoing peace talks to end a 20-year civil war in the south.

The government’s case against the 50-year-old Al-Ayam — widely regarded as balanced and professional — involved articles that "negatively affect the security, the stability and the social and religious unity of the country.’’

Officials at Al-Ayam could not be reached for comment.

Taban said the charge of compromising state stability was too broad, saying an item on the spread of HIV was censored from his paper for that reason. The Monitor’s suspensions were due to state complaints of articles on human rights, slavery, treatment of southern Sudanese and freedom of expression.

Other papers have been banned for publishing interviews with opposition figures.

Last month, the former managing editor of the Monitor decided not to return to Sudan after a conference in Kenya, citing the lack of press freedoms at home. Human Rights Watch said Nhial Bol had also received death threats.

In the end, the media disputes are now settled in court, and most often the newspaper wins back its right to publish.

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