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Media freedom still distant goal in Sudan: top editor

May 19, 2016

The message is clear for Sudanese editor Osman Mirgani whose newspaper resumed printing last week after a five-month ban: “real journalism” remains a risky business in his country.

Mirgani, a US-educated engineer turned editor-in-chief of independent daily Al-Tayar, said he was pleased to see his newspaper back on the stands but feared its return could be short-lived.

“The risk to do real journalism is increasing every day in Sudan,” Mirgani told AFP in an interview at his newspaper’s office in downtown Khartoum where armed men stormed in and beat him up in July 2014.

“We need some time to realise that freedom of expression and freedom of media is good for both, for the people and for the government,” he said, speaking in English.

Al-Tayar has been suspended three times so far by the powerful National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), the longest ban running for two years between 2012 to 2014.

The print runs have been confiscated at least 15 times by NISS agents.

“We have some undeclared redlines, at any time maybe we can cross any of these red lines and you find yourself closed again,” said Mirgani, who studied engineering in Cairo and the United States before turning to journalism two decades ago.

“Every day when we read our newspaper… we feel very happy that we managed to survive till the next morning.”

Since April, NISS has also confiscated print runs of several other newspapers, including Akhir Lahza, Al-Saiha, Al-Taghyeer and Al-Gareeda.

Entire print runs of newspapers are seized regularly by NISS agents over articles they deem inappropriate.

In its 2016 report, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said NISS “hounds journalists and censors the print media”.

It ranked Sudan near the bottom of a world press freedom index.

President Omar al-Bashir’s Arab-dominated government in Khartoum limits international media access to conflict zones like Darfur, while rights groups regularly accuse Sudan’s security forces of detaining activists and opposition politicians.

– ‘Tool of reform’ –

Asked why Al-Tayar was regularly targeted, Mirgani said it could be because of his shoot-from-the-hip style of speaking out and several corruption scandals the newspaper had exposed over the years.

“We are trying to do independent journalism. We are trying to be a tool of reform in Sudan,” said the 54-year-old editor.

Al-Tayar’s latest suspension which lasted for 150 days came after it published a series of articles criticising the government over subsidy cuts on fuel and electricity.

“They never give you a written paper… They just call you by telephone and say: ‘You are closed starting tomorrow. Why? Don’t ask'”.

Al-Tayar resumed printing only after it challenged the NISS in the Constitutional Court — the country’s highest — which ordered the ban be lifted.

Mirgani said it would take time to win back his readers, but he takes pride in the fact that none of his 40 journalists had abandoned the paper.

“But during those five months we suffered a critical financial situation,” he said, adding that after the 2012-2014 suspension it had taken three months just to resume printing.

Mirgani said he was saddened that Sudan, a country of 37 million people, was served by only 20 newspapers with a combined circulation of 300,000, of which Al-Tayar sold about 35,000.

“Sudanese respect print more than television… The newspaper is still the engine of information in Sudan,” he said, hoping the growing digitalisation of the press would widen its reach.

“The future of newspapers is the future of Sudan,” Mirgani said. If the government’s thinking “is not changed, nothing will be changed”.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.