Freedom of expression in Sudan: Interview with Dalia Haj-Omar

By AG Publisher: APCNews     Johannesburg,

APCNews talked to Dalia Haj-Omar, a Sudanese human rights activist, about the recent internet blackout in Sudan, the implications for freedom of expression and association, and the role of the international community.

APC News: On 25 September 2013 Sudan experienced a complete internet shutdown following the outbreak of nationwide anti-government protests. What evidence suggests it could have been caused by the government? Is this the first time the Sudanese government has repressed internet freedom in response to protests?

Dalia Haj-Omar: In June 2013, there was a gathering organised by one of the political parties, a traditional opposition political party. Although this was organised by a single party at a known location with a permit, the government still shut down the internet for eight hours that day. Specific evidence from the internet intelligence corporation Renesys suggests this. I tweeted to Renesys in June and they responded confirming that the Sudatel network was down for eight hours.

Most recently, evidence from Renesys suggests that the 24-hour blackout on 25 September 2013 was reportedly directed by the government in response to the large protests. The report discredits the possibility that it was a technical failure or environmental issue.

The protests were driven by fuel subsidy cuts by the Sudanese government. On September 23, the president gave a speech on Sudan TV that aired live confirming that fuel subsidies would be lifted from gas and cooking oil. He gave very weak justification for why and how they would deal with cutting state expenditure. He did not acknowledge the fact that the state spends very little on basic services for the Sudanese people. He really offended the population.

While the trigger for the protests was economic, the demands on the ground soon became political, linked to freedom, justice, peace, and regime change. The government’s reaction was extremely violent, much more so than in the June/July 2012 protests known as “the Sudan Revolts.” Protests spread nation-wide and intensified once news of protestors being killed started spreading via social media.

The level of participation in the protests shocked the government. It was no longer just a youth-based protest movement, like the 2012 revolts. It became a grassroots movement throughout the country, which was difficult for the regime to control. I think they realised the level of anger is different. They thought they could scare people by using violence, but it turned out this really angered people. I think the main reason the internet was shut down was because disturbing graphic images and videos of students and children dead in the streets circulated quickly on social media. And from ordinary citizens, not just human rights activists. In retrospect, the fact that they shut down the internet is a blessing because it’s embarrassing for them. And it showed that the government had something to hide, and gave us the media attention that we were lacking.

At first, we noticed that the network was slowed down, likely to make documentation hard. The youth I work with access the net on their smart phones. When the net was shut down, it meant they couldn’t live tweet and document online. YouTube was down. People moved to using chat applications, by sending videos via WhatsApp to the diaspora community that would help by uploading to Facebook or YouTube. Intervening with freedom of expression like this might not get as much attention as a total shutdown, but it is actually more serious.

APC: Has there been any reaction from service providers or the government?

D.H.O.: The only direct contact civil society has had with the service providers has been through Access, as far as I know. Access wrote a letter to the service providers. MTN responded by saying that they rent access to the global internet from Sudatel and Canar and that when those networks closed down so did theirs. They also added that they do have a human rights and ICTs unit, but they can’t ensure that such network interruptions/shutdowns will not happen in the future because it’s not in their hands. They also added that they were not able to provide any remedies to end-users nor did they issue a formal statement outside the statement by the National Telecommunications Corporation, which claimed that there was a fire in Canar’s offices.

APC: Online censorship is a big issue in Sudan. What have been the consequences of the National Security Act of 2010, which gives the National Intelligence and Security Services permission to arrest journalists and censor newspapers under the pretext of “national security”?

D.H.O.: It’s really a combination of laws that are harming net freedom in Sudan, not just a single law. Lack of freedom in the media and freedom of expression offline have slowly started to creep online. Government censorship used to target a couple of online newspapers. After and during the 2012 Sudan revolts, the government started paying closer attention to what activists, citizen journalists, and bloggers do online.

The 2009 Print Press and Materials Law holds editors-in-chief responsible for all published content, which encourages a culture of self censorship. The National Security Act gives permission to the National Intelligence and Security Services to arrest journalists and censor newspapers. This act has a lot of leverage; at least sixteen newspapers closed since the separation of South Sudan in July 2013 because national security confiscates printed copies post publication. This has driven many newspapers to bankruptcy. The IT Crime Act criminalises websites that criticise the government. These laws contradict Sudan’s constitution, which protects against all of this, but the enforcement of it is zero.

The government has actually asked several television stations to leave, including Al Arabiya and Sky. During the recent September protests about seven newspapers were suspended because they were forbidden to speak about the economic situation and the protests. Some newspapers stopped printing after journalists went on strike out of frustration with excessive censorship, others were forced to close for several days. In critical times like this, it is up to citizens to document so it is very important to maintain the internet as a place that is free and easy to access, and not excessively slow.

APC: Can you tell me a bit about the ruling National Congress Party’s “cyber jihadist” unit?

D.O.H.: During the 2012 Sudan revolts, the government hired more people under the cyber jihadist unit to monitor the net closely, particularly on social media platforms. Activists were discredited by the unit on social media. They were harassed, attacked, and had their Facebook pages hacked. Many were arrested and national security demanded Facebook and email passwords upon arrest. For the first time, we saw the detention of digital activists and bloggers.

Sudan’s most prominent video blogger, Nagla’a Sid Ahmad, was forced into exile. Darfurian online journalist Somia Hundosa was kidnapped and tortured. Usamh Mohammed was detained for two months without charges for a posting a YouTube video and tweeting live from a protest during the Sudan revolts. Jalila Khamis, one of the most high profile political detainees from the Nuba Mountains, spent nine months in detention without charges, and when she finally faced a trial in December 2012, the main evidence against her was a YouTube video taken by Sid Ahmad, where Khamis testified about the shelling of civilians in the Nuba Mountains by the government of Sudan (a campaign on her behalf was launched by GIRIFNA eight months into her detention using the hashtag #Jalila8months).

APC: MTN, one of the internet service providers in Sudan that shut down services, is a South African company. Should South Africans be responsible for holding MTN accountable for the shutdown? What is the role of the international community in wake of an internet shutdown?

D.H.O.: When it comes to net freedom and freedom of expression, I feel that the solutions are not always local. They are local in the sense that Sudanese civil society has the role and the duty to inform, to document and to protest, but we do need help from global civil society that is working on these issues, in terms of sharing successes with advocacy, pressure on telecommunications companies, best practices, and lessons learned.

When I saw Access’s letter to the telecommunications companies, I was like “wow, this is exactly what we need.”

A major problem for civil society in Sudan is that in general, we have not had a relationship with the private sector. Telecommunications companies are essentially under the control of the government. I attended the Stockholm Internet Forum 2013 and the CEO of Sudatel, one of the main providers in Sudan, was on a panel. When he was asked how Sudatel would react if the government requests information, he responded that 1. Sudatel expects a court order and 2. that they are not Google or Facebook, they are a telecom, meaning their infrastructure is physical infrastructure and at the end of the day what they care about is income and revenues. It’s pragmatism. They don’t seem to care about user rights, human rights or freedom of expression. This is a big challenge for civil society. Not to mention that Sudan is not really a democratic country, and the rule of law hardly applies.

APC: What can be done to prevent a shutdown like this in the future?

D.H.O.: What Sudan needs is more attention from the international community when it comes to issues of freedom of expression, the rights of human rights defenders, and freedom of association and peaceful protest. These rights empower ordinary people.

There is a growing peaceful pro-democracy movement in the country, but it does not get enough attention as an empowering force. Freedom of expression and government accountability should be as important as the decade-long conflict in Darfur. When it comes to Sudan, peaceful citizen-driven solutions are not sexy for the international community or media. For them it is easier to cover Sudan through the lens of conflict and humanitarian crisis, because that’s an easier story to cover.

In comparison to neighbouring countries, Sudan has good infrastructure, good internet penetration, and low consumer rates. In 2012, internet penetration was 21% compared to 19% in 2011. Mobile penetration is 60% and we had the cheapest costs in MENA in 2012. This indicates that the issue is not an infrastructure or even a cost-barrier problem, but rather it is a repressive regime that does not respect freedom of expression and assembly. The international community continues to engage with Sudan in a fragmented way, instead of acknowledging that the government needs to go.

It is also crucial to acknowledge that the Sudanese people can bring about change on their own. The international community does not see an alternative political leadership that can fill the shoes of the current government, but this is because there is not enough freedom of any sort in the country for that leadership to be evident. That leadership does exist.

For more information about Sudan, check out Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2013 report.

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