Media freedom is an essential component of democratic transformation and political reform. During the 2019 December revolution in Sudan, dozens of journalists were arrested and beaten. In opposition to the government, the Sudanese Journalists’ Network organized protest vigils and processions denouncing the government’s approach under the slogan: “The press is here to stay, and tyrants are fleeting.”
Observers consider the press as the most prominent tool that can contribute to democratic transformation in Sudan after the popular revolution of December 18, 2019. The revolution toppled the regime of dictator Omar al-Bashir, who ruled the country with absolute power for 30 years. After years of repression and obscurity, the Sudanese press needs change, renewal, and training to increase public awareness and fulfill citizens’ aspirations. Currently, the Sudanese media is waging a “battle of freedoms” in the context of the country’s internal challenges after the transitional government took over. While the media is preoccupied with preparing for the democratic transition by researching and excavating its rights – which can contribute to the consolidation of the establishment of a pluralistic democratic system – the transitional government is still busy laying the necessary foundation to facilitating and accelerating the democratization process by ensuring more freedom of expression for the media and the press.
Printed and electronic press – divided or the same?
Media expert Ali Shummo, who was the first journalist to hold the position of Minister of Information in the Middle East and Africa in 1978, says that the role of the paper or electronic press is crucial in this transitional phase. The media can contribute to the foundation of the post-transitional period, as this stage will determine the form and type of governance and the optimal course to run the country. In this way, the press must enhance public opinion, sharing its views, aspirations, and hopes for the democratic transition.
Shummo added in a statement to “UTBLICK” that despite the shrinkage of the paper press, we can still see that its impact is significant because most of the first, second, and third-degree influencers -who represent big influencers like actors, artists, athletes, and social media stars who can influence over a million people and macro influencers like executives, bloggers and journalists who can influence less than a million people, as well as micro influencers like consumers or employees whose influence can range from a thousand to a million people- on the general public opinion read and keep these newspapers. It offers vast opportunities for exchanging views which is very important to achieve the democratic transition, the state’s constitution, and the governance structure after the revolution.
Shummo found that the emergence of social media -websites, electronic newspapers, and satellite channels websites- has significantly impacted public opinion. And it puts the world events under the wide-spread hearing and sight in real-time.
He adds that some of these news channels are balanced and transmit news with professionalism and credibility. On the other hand, because of the international blocs and regional hubs, some exaggerate and manipulate information leading to fabricated, artificial, and produced news.
The role of free media
During the dictatorship, the Sudanese press faced repression and security blockade, being biased and limited when sharing shortcomings and mistakes committed by the authority to avoid confrontation. The security forces have confiscated newspapers, arrested journalists, and withdrawn their work licenses. These problems naturally weakened the Sudanese press and produced a new generation of journalists with low qualifications due to the lack of training bodies, not to mention poor salaries.
Al-Jazeera media expert, Al-Zubair Naiel, argues that it is necessary to define the main conditions or determinants to the press and media so that they can carry out their democratic functions, starting with the ability to represent the different opinions within society. There is in every society a group of groups with different goals, needs, and ideologies. To have the ability to protect the interests of society, you have to be the guardian of society. The public looks for media that monitors the structure of power within society, the media provides information to the public, and that very act contributes to achieving social unity.
Naiel – who is considered one of the founders of Al Jazeera News Channel – added that the free media performs basic functions to support the process of democratic development and political reform, such as fulfilling the public’s right to know by transmitting news from multiple sources, explaining and interpreting them, and conveying different opinions on internal and external issues. Free media contribute to the realization of democracy by allowing an arena for the free expression of all opinions and trends and providing the masses the opportunity to express their views on the proposed intellectual and political projects.
Naiel also points to the importance of contributing to political participation by providing sufficient information that enables citizens to make decisions about supporting political parties and intellectual trends.
A past of repression
Sudan is currently ranked 174th according to the latest assessment of the Press Freedom Index in 2018, which measures the conditions of the press in 180 countries around the world. Before Al-Bashir’s rule, the Sudanese press was professional, and the journalists were qualified and familiar with all forms of journalistic work like writing for the press or broadcasting on radio and television, despite the lack of resources. The number of newspapers and journalists was limited, facilitating distinction and individualization of topics. Evaluation of the journalists financially and morally added to the difficulty of entering the profession due to strict institutional controls.
All these reasons made the Sudanese press famous in the past, but the repressive Bashir regime, by contrast, produced so many less trained journalists that it has nearly tripled the number of journalists, and there are now at least seven thousand. Al-Bashir also left the door open for officials of public relations and security services to enter the field of journalism to implement a specific plan to cover up the crimes of the Bashir regime against civilians in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains, oppression of women and disrespect for human rights. This led to a terrible collapse of the press – lack of training for journalists, poor work environment, poor salaries, and the entry of some traders and businessmen into the field for financial gain, which led to the continued weakness of the Sudanese press.
As mentioned above, Sudanese journalists also suffered from harassment and difficulties in their work, which caused a significant deterioration in the level of the local press. In addition to arbitrary arrests due to opinion articles, torture, threats, withdrawal of work licenses, and denial of investigations showing government mistakes, the security authorities attacked professional journalistic work. So, it was trying to break the power of journalists, weaken the press.
The journalists who know well what it means to fear the security forces and the deepening of self-censorship among press workers colleagues and who grew up in fear within the walls of repressive regimes are the ones who see the harvest of the revolution now. They know well the meaning of the gains they have obtained in the presence of all the laws restricting freedoms in force.
Journalists with decades of experience in the profession fear the future because the experiences of military coups are still repeated in Africa and the developing countries, which makes them more cautious about the future. It is true that the Transitional Military Council, which took power, lifted all forms of censorship imposed on newspapers and other media. Still, the press has not yet fully liberated itself from its old restrictions. The one who gave this broad freedom can withdraw it at any moment by a decision as well.
What did the 2019 revolution provide for the Sudanese newspapers?
Sudanese newspapers are currently living in the protection of the society whose members felt freedom and the need to unite to protect this freedom by supporting the press and strengthening the rule of law. Everyone is looking forward to playing an honest and effective role in the lives of the Sudanese after the revolution. This role is clear in the Declaration of the Forces of Freedom and Change, which are Sudanese political components made up of the Professionals Association, the Revolutionary Front and the Alliance of National Consensus Forces, as well as the opposition Federal Gathering. The Freedom Forces were established in January 2019, especially after the Military Council abolished the laws restricting freedoms and the Press and Publications Law so that journalists could exercise their intended role.
Thirty-seven newspapers are currently published in Sudan, 80% of which are in the capital, and in 2018 they distributed about 36 million copies, a decrease of 23 million copies compared to 2017, when the volume of circulation reached 59 million copies, according to the (governmental) Press and Publications Council in the latest report verifying the spread.
Professionalism despite obstacles
Despite the obstacles mentioned above, achieving openness and freedom to write without hindrances is one of the most prominent achievements of Sudanese journalists. Most of the professionals prevented from practicing journalism under security decisions after the revolution have returned to their total activity and may represent the most liberal face of journalism among their peers, like the journalist and ex minister Faisal Mohamed Saleh and Faiz Alselaik and Mahir Abu Eljoukh.
The American newspaper “The Washington Post” said that it is the duty of the free world to do everything in its power to help the Sudanese people again reach the path of democracy, “which at first glance seemed to have taken place recently after the popular revolution that toppled the dictator Omar al-Bashir. In 2019, before the new and unpopular military coup swept the country in October 2021. The newspaper stated – in an article by its Iranian-born opinion writer, Jizon Rezaian – that the speech of Sudanese Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok at the United Nations headquarters in 2019, where he stressed that “in the new Sudan will never again imprison journalists,” constituted an important “optimistic moment” in the history of modern Sudan.
Although the hopes that the page of authoritarian rule has been turned forever began to dissipate, the writer adds, the spirit of defiance of the Sudanese people in the face of the military is still solid and inspiring.
Talking about the dream of the role of the press in supporting and achieving the democratic transition leads us to the fact that the Sudanese media needs structural reform. This reform implies a general policy and a firm political decision, as an issue of quality, not a matter of expression, because the slogans of the revolution were clear; Freedom, Peace, and Justice.
The democratic transition in Sudan requires more awareness of the need to provide freedom of opinion and expression, political and legal protection for the media, to perform their role during the transition phase and to establish a code of honor for all media professionals, to control performance and push the democratic transition towards pluralistic democracy and to defend the Sudanese identity.
Elsadiq Elbidari is a journalist who has worked for Al Jazeera Network, been a Sudan TV correspondent from the European Union and the International Criminal Court, and a reporter for Radio Khartoum. Currently, he is the Head of Media and Public relations office at Rawasi Contracting Group.