In a recent article about Independent Journalism, Libyan Freelance Journalist Ayat Mneina said in a that she was driven by one idea: that the truth would speak for itself and she simply had to deliver the facts. When working in a risky environment, many journalists are driven by the willingness to get the truth out there, to give a voice to those who do not have one because they live under oppressive governments and corrupt politicians. Journalists who report under dictatorships, oppressors and authoritarian rulers risk their lives every day to do their jobs.
Sudan is ranked number 174 out of 180 countries in the press freedom index, making it one of the most oppressive places to work as a journalist. President Omar al-Bashir, who has been ruling the country for almost 30 years, is indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. The Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) harasses journalists with threats and censoring articles or closes down editorial offices, as recently happened to daily newspaper Al-Sudani. As the Committee to Protect Journalists reports, agents of the NISS “appeared at the newspaper’s printers in Khartoum last March and seized all copies of the daily, which had just been printed and was being prepared for distribution”.
In light of the World Press freedom day, thanks to the help of our partners at Nuba Reports, Words in the Bucket talked with a journalist based in Khartoum about what it means to do this job where press freedom is so low and the risks to reporting are so high.
Why did you choose to become a reporter and why do you think reporting matters?
I chose to become a reporter because I’ve always wanted to work in this field. At the university level, I studied journalism because it is the only thing I’ve ever imagined myself doing, and worked for the student newspaper. Writing and recording stories is a passion to me. Coming from a country like Sudan, I believe that reporters have a huge role to play. They can tell many underreported stories, especially that the country is in a state of conflict. Documentation, as well as revealing the truth, is part of my role as a reporter in the peacebuilding process.
In a country where press freedom is extremely low, what are the main challenges you face as a reporter/journalist?
There are many challenges that impact the work environment as well as the livelihoods of Sudanese journalists. Firstly, the government continues to confiscate newspapers and, after tedious work on our part as journalists, censor our stories before they are published. Confiscation of newspapers hurts publishers economically, and this leads them to fire the journalists who are seen as daring. Journalists also lose their livelihoods and are forced out of the market when Sudan’s security apparatus bans them from writing in all print newspapers. Some are lucky enough to take on administrative roles at their former newspapers.
Secondly, journalists have a very difficult time when it comes to accessing information, as most information is considered “a security threat.” This means that it is very dangerous to access public records, and it makes reporting more difficult since sources are very scared of talking to journalists. Many journalists are now in court or facing charges for trying to reveal information that the government considers as ‘crossing the line’ – which can be anything from reporting on the conflict to writing about sexual harassment.
Thirdly, the repressive environment impacts the morale of journalists. It hurts their ability to produce quality work, and many are working other jobs to make ends meet. Many in the field have spoken about the current low standards of journalism.
What are the main punishments inflicted by the government? How do they keep you from doing your work?
Other than having their work censored, journalists are vulnerable to losing their livelihoods if they pursue any topic deemed controversial. Newspapers are punished for hiring daring journalists when the government confiscates printed copies and advertising suffers. In fact, over ten newspapers have been shut down by the security apparatus over the last five years, and this means that dozens of journalists were out of work almost overnight.
Moreover, they are distracted from their profession as they are summoned for questioning, subjected to trials, etc. Security agents summoned dozens of journalists last year, subjecting some of them to harassment and intimidation. Sudan is also known for imprisoning journalists. In 2013, Amel Habbani (winner of the 2014 Ginetta Sagan Award by Amnesty USA) was detained by the security apparatus for over ten days for covering an anti-government protest. Journalists have faced imprisonment almost every year in Sudan and the time spent in detention ranges from a few hours to a few months.
How has Nuba Reports helped in your work?
Nuba Reports is of great help because it is one of the very few venues available for journalists from Sudan to tell underreported stories or stories that will never be published in Sudanese and non-Sudanese media outlets. Nuba Reports is also an inclusive news source as the writers are very diverse. It is also inclusive because the sources interviewed, unlike other media outlets, are not just experts or politicians, but normal citizens who get to have their voices amplified.
There are mixed allegations on press freedom from within Sudan, some say it has gotten better, and some do not. Do you think that things are changing for journalists in Sudan? And why?
I would say that it has gotten much worse since the 2011 secession of South Sudan for a number of reasons.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was instrumental in opening up space for civil society and journalism. Many independent newspapers were established and there was a lot of room to write and learn in the journalism field. After the CPA ended and South Sudan separated, the Sudanese government turned more dictatorial as it had shaped a better image in front of the international community through the 2010 general elections and facilitating the referendum without any conflict. The attention of the international community left Sudan and shifted to South Sudan, leaving the government with the chance to return to the way things were in the 1990s. Many newspapers were quickly shut down, journalists were arrested and many were forced to flee Sudan.
The ongoing conflicts in Sudan have also contributed to less press freedom. In 2011, instead of one conflict, the government of Sudan started fighting on three different fronts (Darfur, Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan) and this meant that a large part of the country was under “emergency laws.” The conflicts led to more political repression and polarization. Any journalist who wanted to write about the conflict was labelled as a “rebel affiliate.” This polarization meant that newspapers could not properly cover the conflict and that the whole media landscape came under the tight grip of the security apparatus.
Another factor that has contributed to declining press freedom is economic deterioration as a result of the secession and the ongoing conflicts. It has led to rapid deterioration in all aspects of life, especially social services. The main impacts are:
- The economic woes has made it difficult for independent newspapers to survive as the running cost becomes impossible to meet. Newspapers were pushed to increase their prices, making them “expensive” for the majority of the public and with no advertising revenue, many journalists are underpaid.
- The economic situation of journalists have made them vulnerable to corruption as some have started receiving bribes from the government to write about specific issues and so on.
- Deterioration of social services means that dissent has been on the rise. For the past few years, Sudan has witnessed a protest movement and journalists have been increasingly intimidated to not cover such events. In fact, in 2013, when over 200 protesters were killed over a period of three days, independent journalists announced a strike saying that they cannot stay silent and they face too much censorship to tell the truth.
Sudan is one of many countries where journalists risk their livelihoods and their lives to give a voice to those who do not have one, and to deliver the truth about their governments and societies. Today, we should honour all journalists and respect the incredible effort that they make to stay confident and driven by their beliefs and passion.
Author’s notes: The identity of the journalist interviewed remains anonymous for security reasons.