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Sudan’s leader promises to end press censorship

By BBC Monitoring Media Services

August 14, 2003

President Umar Hasan al-Bashir has lifted censorship of the press in Sudan by the security service, following his recent pledge to increase political freedom in Africa’s largest country.

A presidential decree issued on 12 August transferred responsibility for overseeing newspapers from Sudan’s National Security Agency to the semi-autonomous National Press Council. The president advised the council to "keep the country’s interests in mind" when making decisions.

Putting the press council in control of the national and local press was intended "to further boost the national consensus towards resolving the nation’s problems", Sudanese TV said on 12 August.

Sudanese radio said Bashir, the head of an Islamist government that came to power in a military coup in 1989, had issued the decree in response to requests from opposition parties.

On 10 August President Bashir had promised to introduce greater political freedom in Sudan, and to review the list of political detainees.

"When we drew up the constitution, we approved multipartyism, a peaceful rotation of power, and we acknowledged the existence of the opposition, and it was good to have laws governing the press. All these we approved. However, people might differ in their opinions. I might have personal views and convictions on how the [public] interest lies regarding a certain issue, thinking that it safeguards the government’s interests, which the people may have violated.

"On the issue of press censorship, we have lifted it completely. Whoever wants to say whatever he wants, let him do so, whether it is in the press or even through the government television itself," Bashir said in an address relayed by Sudanese TV.

The opposition Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) welcomed the decision by the president lifting press censorship and travel restriction on politicians, but expressed doubts about its implementation by the government, according to the Sudanese newspaper Al-Khartoum on 13 August.

Press freedom improving since 2002

In the view of international media watchdogs, press freedom in Sudan has improved since the government said in late 2001 it was lifting censorship of all the country’s main daily newspapers.

In August 2002, President Bashir authorized opposition political parties to operate. The rebels of the southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) were not included in the measure, but the signing of a government-rebel agreement in July 2002 was hailed as a major step towards peace.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, in its survey of 2002, reported: "Sudanese journalists say they have some freedom in their daily reporting and that restrictions, including prior censorship, occur less often today than in previous years."

But periodic government crackdowns against independent papers have continued.

The Paris-based organization Reporters Sans Frontieres noted in its annual report for 2002: "Despite positive changes such as allowing opposition parties and reaching agreement with the SPLA, press freedom was under attack throughout the year. Many journalists were arrested or called in for questioning and independent newspapers were censored."

President Bashir’s latest pledge to lift press censorship, if it translates into action, will go a long way to breaking down the climate of self-censorship and fear that Sudanese journalists say they still operate under.