Sudan at UPR: An opportunity to support domestic calls for urgent reforms

Understanding the mix of positive and negative steps in relation to the protection and promotion of freedom of expression in Sudan, from this UPR session.

Cynthia Ibale, African Centre For Justice and Peace Studies

January 31, 2022

25 October 2021 — the Sudanese military, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan seized power through a coup, arresting members of the Transitional Government, declaring a state of emergency, which significantly disrupted internet and mobile communications. This prompted nationwide protests rejecting the military takeover and demanding transfer of power back to a civilian authority. The coup happened a week prior to Sudan’s third periodic review.

As a result, Sudan’s Ambassador to the United Nations requested for the postponement of Sudan’s periodic review stating that the ‘recent unfortunate developments in the country had created an unstable situation’ affecting the participation of Sudanese officials in the review. The Bureau resolved to grant the Ambassador’s request for postponement, noting that Sudan’s last third cycle UPR session would be held at the 40th session in early 2022. Sudan’s review is currently scheduled for 1 February 2022.

Ahead of Sudan’s 3rd Review, the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS), Small Media and partners submitted a joint stakeholder report highlighting the state of freedom of expression including digital rights, freedom of information and right to privacy in Sudan. During the review period, Sudan had embarked on a 39-month transition and was well into its second year.

The period under review is marked with a mix of positive and negative steps in relation to the protection and promotion of freedom of expression in Sudan. The 2019 Constitutional Charter, provides for, among others, the right to freedom of expression, to receive and publish information and press freedom. A new addition to the Rights Charter is the provision on the right to internet access.

Despite these constitutional guarantees, not much has changed in terms of realization and protection of these rights. Recent events have shown that repressive practices that were a common feature under the Bashir regime, remain in place. Authorities have also continued to rely on repressive laws to crack down on peaceful protests, disrupt internet and mobile connectivity and harass journalists, human rights defenders and perceived critics.

During the beginning of the transition period in Sudan, a systematic state harassment of the media, journalists and online spaces temporarily subsided.

The infamous National Intelligence and Security Services, authority behind media censorship in Sudan, had their wide powers reduced to gathering intelligence, and was renamed the General Intelligence Services (GIS). Routine raids to media houses by NISS agents and confiscations of entire print runs stopped.

However, these gains are currently under threat. A recent decree by the coup leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, has temporarily authorized GIS agents to conduct searches, detain suspects, among others, until the state of emergency is lifted. The decree also grants the GIS immunity from civil suits.

Sudanese journalists and citizens as a result, continue to face arrest, prosecution, harassment, and intimidation for expression related activities. Several journalists have been detained, harassed, attacked and their equipment damaged by security forces as they covered anti-coup protests that have continued to take place since 25 October. In the wee hours of 25 October, armed forces raided the Sudan News Agency, the state broadcaster, and detained its employees. Later that day, the General Director of the News Agency was summarily dismissed by a decree issued by Gen. Al-Burhan. Media advisors and journalists in different states across the country were also detained as the coup events unfolded. Sudanese Armed Forces suspended the broadcast of some radio stations including BBC, Monte Carlo, 69 FM Radio.

On 7 November 2021, Hassan Hamid, a photographer for the Arabic independent newspaper was attacked by police officers in Burri neighborhood in Khartoum as he filmed police cracking down on protestors. The officers who attacked him broke his camera.

On 14 November 2021, security forces in Khartoum raided the home of Aljazeera bureau chief El Musalmi El Kabbashi, arrested and detained him. Reasons for his detention were not given however it was suspected that his arrest could have been in connection with the coverage of the anti-coup protests. He was released two days later. That same day, another journalist, Shawgi Abdul Azim, was arrested by intelligence officers as he exited the Aljazeera offices in Khartoum after an interview. He was briefly detained at an unknown location and released after 4 hours.

On 17 November 2021, Ali Farassab, a journalist for Al-Tayyar independent newspaper sustained a head injury from a gunshot that grazed him as security officers fired live ammunition to disperse protests in Khartoum Bahri. The police beat him and then detained him at Al-Mogran neighborhood police station in Khartoum. He was denied medical attention despite lawyers trying to intervene on his behalf. He was released days later without charge.

Social media and online communication platforms have been critical for the mobilization of nationwide protests across Sudan and corresponding mobilization in the diaspora.

However, connectivity restrictions especially during politically charged situations, such as protests seem to have become the norm.

In June 2019, an internet shutdown was put in place as the authorities violently dispersed a peaceful sit-in at the military headquarters. Internet was later restored on 9 July 2019 after 36 days of no access. After the restoration of the internet, social media was awash with images and videos from the 3 June 2019 massacre. At least 100 peaceful protestors were reportedly killed during this violent crackdown.

On 25 October, a disruption to internet, cellular and some fixed line connectivity was reported. Access to information and online mobilization around anti-coup protests was restricted. These disruptions have been imposed for a couple of hours to day-long disruptions. Mobile internet was reported to have been disrupted on 25 & 30 December 2021 as well as 2 January 2022.

Speaking at the UN General Assembly in September 2019, former Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok stated: “Never again in the new Sudan will a journalist be repressed or jailed.” Unfortunately, this promise was not followed through with and instead attacks on freedom of expression online and off continue to mark the political climate in Sudan.

As a result, The African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies and Small Media Foundation put forth the following recommendations, and call on UN member States to make to Sudan during its upcoming 3rd cycle Universal Periodic Review session:

  • End internet shutdowns and ensure restrictions to the internet are in line with international human rights standards
  • End intimidation and harassment of journalists and others exercising their right to freedom of expression; and
  • Amend applicable provisions of problematic laws like the 1991 Criminal Act, 2009 Publications Act and the Law on Cybercrime in line with international human rights standards

Sudan will now be reviewed on 1 February, 2022 at 9:00AM CET. You can follow Uproar live-tweeting Sudan’s session here.

Cynthia Ibale is a human rights lawyer currently advocating for improved human rights protection in Sudan.

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