Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 8 December 2014

Internet Freedoms Deteriorate in Sudan According to Global Survey


By: Reem Abbas and Dalia Haj Omar

December 8, 2014 - This week marks the release of the Freedom of the Net 2014 global survey, which for the second year in a row, will have a chapter focusing on Sudan. Last year, the Sudan chapter was authored by GIRIFNA, this year it was authored anonymously to signify the continuing restrictions on freedoms in Sudan.

The Freedom on the Net 2014 report, released on 4 December 2014, covers 65 countries across six geographical regions. It spans the period between May 2013 to May 2014. This will be the fifth edition since Freedom House began the series in 2009. The Freedom on the Net report is "one of the leading references for policymakers, journalists, and activists on this emerging and increasingly important dimension of human rights."

The global report of 2014 categorized Sudan as “Not Free”, with a score of 65 (out of 100) as compared to 63 in 2013. Out of a total of 12 African countries analyzed, Sudan was one of three countries in the “Not Free” category, ranking 11th— only ahead of Ethiopia.

This year’s Sudan chapter will be equally interesting and disturbing for readers, as it covers the period during and after the deadly September 2013 protests, which saw at least 200 people killed, and a heavy crackdown on press freedoms and freedom of expression.

Sudan also saw, a nationwide internet blackout that Renesys, the worldwide internet intelligence company, stated was “the largest government-directed Internet blackout since Egypt in January 2011.” The Sudanese government has denied its implication in the blackout. The governmental agency, the National Telecommunications Corporation (NTC) blamed a fire in the offices of Canar, but many believe that the blackout was orchestrated by the NTC as part of the Sudanese government’s response to the protests.This includes Renesys, which stated that the internet blackout, "strongly suggests a coordinated action to remove Sudan from the Internet".

Media Moving Online to Circumvent Censorship

The NTC, which has the power to control any websites they view as "immoral” and "blasphemous" regularly blocks online newspapers or websites that distribute opposition material such as Hurriyat, Al-Rakoba, Sudanese Online and others. At one point in late 2012, Youtube was also blocked to protest the film “The Innocence of Muslims".

This did not stop online newspapers from continuing to emerge in 2013 and 2014 with Al-Taghyeer and Al-Tareeg newspapers establishing a strong internet presence. This shift of newspapers from print media to online media is not only to meet the global shift of media houses in the digital age, but mainly an attempt to circumvent government censorship.

However, bloggers and online journalists suffer from the digital syndrome of "freedom of expression, but no freedom after expression" where they are subjected to harassment, detentions and intimidations due to the online articles they publish as well as a result of their digital activism.

In June 2013, National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) arrested Khaled Ahmed, the political editor of Al-Sudani newspaper, because an article appeared in an online website carrying his first name. The article had sensitive information about the military operation in Abu-Kershola town in Southern Kordofan at a time when the army was trying to gain it back from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM-North). Ahmed was one of few journalists who visited the area, however, he denied his implication in this article and said that his email was hacked.

Until March 2014 Ahmed was facing trial in the intellectual property rights court, where he was charged under the IT crime act and the penal code. Additionally, in July 2013, three youths were arrested in a town in Northern Kordofan for commenting on corruption charges in the government of Northern Kordofan and were charged with defamation. Analysts believe that such incidents might set a precedent for a new law that will impose tougher censorship on online media and social media websites.

Online newspapers and media outlets also suffered technical violence from what appeared to be pro-government entities. This included hacking the the websites of Sudan Tribune and 3ayin, in April 2014.

The September Effect

Moreover, the effects of the September protests were seen and felt in the coming year, with government officials threatening to impose an electronic media law, as an example, Yaser Yousif Ibrahim, the ruling party’s media secretary told the pass in a July 2013 interview that an electronic media law is needed because it will grant "authorities the right to block websites when they violate agreed upon limitations". Between July 2013 and June 2014, the government of Sudan was amongst those who made requests to Facebook demanding personal information on five Facebook user accounts, compared to zero requests the previous year. None of these requests were granted.

In addition, a strong campaign began by all telecommunications companies to impose sim-card registration. The campaign was on television, newspapers, billboards and companies offered prizes such as money, free credit, gold and cars for users that register. Registering a sim-card requires a national ID card and personal details and this was seen by activists as a way by security services to track users phone numbers.

The government’s surveillance of digital communications and social media platforms; as well as the tapping of phone calls continues to target the civil society and political opposition members; especially at times of unrest or during protests.

Limitations Imposed by U.S. Sanctions

The report also noted that the American imposed sanctions on Sudan continued to act as a barrier to free access to information and knowledge. These limitations included the banning of original American-made software, anti-viruses, security updates as well as limitations to access free online educational platforms (such as Khan Academy, Google Scholar and Audacity) as well as other Massive Open Online Courses. The report noted that this constitutes a violation of the universal right to access education. Other barriers included access to crisismapping tools and US-based crowdfunding platforms.

Additionally, U.S.-made surveillance software, Blue-Coat Systems was traced in three networks in Sudan prompting the authors of the report to say, “These revelations made evident that the U.S. sanctions regime against Sudan have not impeded the Sudanese government from gaining access to or purchasing U.S.-made surveillance software as intended. Rather the sanctions more often impinge upon regular users’ access to ICTs...”

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