News from Sudan
Civic Space Situation Report: July - September 2020
This report is produced as part of the Sudan Civic Space Monitor and presents a brief on the situation of civic space in the country based on the fundamental pillars of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, Freedom of Association and Assembly, Non-discrimination/Inclusion and Citizen/Political Participation. The report is based on news and information that is captured and published on the Civic Monitor website and analysis provided by Sudanese civil society actors from different backgrounds and areas of expertise.
The peace negotiations between the Government and Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) culminated in an initialing of an agreement in a ceremony held in the South Sudanese capital Juba on 31 August. Meanwhile violence and unrest flared in the Eastern Sudan states of Kassala and Red Sea as well as in parts of Darfur.
On the Human Rights front, the Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in the Sudan issued his report at the Human Rights Council Forty-fifth session convened in September. The report highlighted concerns on the country’s restrictive legislative framework governing civic space with particular reference to the Voluntary and Humanitarian Work Act of 2006 which “remains in force and allows the Humanitarian Aid Commission to broadly control civil society activities”. The report also flagged concerns over some of the decisions of the Committee for Dismantling Ingaz (Salvation) Regime and Removing Empowerment and urged “the Government to ensure that international human rights standards are respected throughout the process and that the implementation of a rights-abiding vetting process is put in place in order to avoid political misuse and ensure access to justice for those affected by the Committee’s decisions”. The economy has continued its decline with mounting shortages in the availability of bread, fuel, and cooking gas. Prices of basic commodities and products soared and the value of the Sudanese Pound against major foreign currencies continued its decline where by September the value of the Sudanese Pound to the US dollar stood at 250 in the parallel market, an increase of almost 75% from June 2020. Following repeated postponement, and against a background of expectations to halt the deterioration of the Sudanese economy, Sudan’s National Economic Conference (under the theme "Toward Sustainable Economic Development") was eventually convened in late September.
The rainy season has brought heavy rains and flooding in several parts of the country causing losses in the lives and properties of communities living along the banks of the river Nile. The states of Khartoum, Blue Nile and River Nile states were among the hardest hit, while substantial damage was also reported in El Gezira, West Kordofan and South Darfur regions. In September, the government imposed a three-month state of emergency and declared the country a natural disaster area.
Freedom of Expression and Access to Information
The continued economic decline has taken a toll on the print journalism sector. In July, the Newspaper Publishers Union decided to increase the price of newspapers, and the cost of running adverts on newspapers also increased substantially. Several prominent newspapers declared that they would cease publication or reduce their print volumes, and some have turned to digital/online publishing because of the high production costs. Earlier in April and because of measures imposed by the Government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic newspapers had been suspended also leading to the suspension of several printing presses and publishing houses. According to an article published on the new Arab website, when the restrictions were subsequently lifted in June, only four of twenty-five newspapers resumed production/distribution.
Access to the internet has also been curtailed as a result of an increase in charges by telecom service providers. The price of internet/data services for ZAIN mobile subscribers increased by 50% in September. Meanwhile, measures to thwart leaks of the Sudan Secondary School exams in September, resulted in internet services nationwide being suspended for one week during the hours of 0800 to 1100 hours. A CSO group condemned the decision to cut off internet services and, in a statement, issued on 18 September declared it as a clear violation of the right to access information.
Soaring transportation and distribution costs of newspapers compounded with poor internet services have contributed to a decline in access to information in the states and other distant/remote parts of the country.
On the sidelines of his participation in the UN General Assembly in New York in late September, Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok signed the Global Pledge to Defend Media Freedom, and pledged that no journalist in the New Sudan will be repressed or imprisoned. On the back of another pledge made by the Minister of Culture and Information to end censorship, over 500 books were released from censorship. Additionally, in a vital step advancing the promotion of media pluralism, the Broadcast Licensing Committee of the Ministry of Culture and Information announced in July that it had issued new licenses for 15 television and radio stations.
Despite these positive developments harsher penalties allowing for prison sentence ranging from four to six years in addition to heavy fines have been introduced to the Information and Cybercrime Law of 2007. Moreover, the Law for Protecting Doctors, Medical Personnel and Health Facilities passed amid the COVID-19 pandemic in May 2020 and with a view to deterring the repeated assaults on doctors and health workers punishes misleading or incorrect information that affects the performance of medical personnel with imprisonment for up to 10 years. Lana Awad, a female human rights defender and journalist working with the Ministry of Health in El Fasher, North Darfur had been harassed and threatened with arrest in May in response to an investigative report she had published exposing the dire health situation in El Fasher owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In July, the Sudanese military also threatened to pursue legal action against activists and journalists who have “insulted” the military. Authorities filed charges against a female activist ‘Ludun” for posting a video on her Facebook page in which she chanted slogans against the military during a parade that was staged in Khartoum on 30 July 2020.
Freedom of Association and Assembly
Despite promising steps taken by the Government regarding legal reforms impacting Freedom of Association, new laws with regard to the Trade Unions and Civil Society have not been passed. A Committee formed in January 2020 by the Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) and tasked with overseeing reforms to the Sudan Voluntary and Humanitarian Works Act of 2006 as well to the Commission itself has yet to achieve any tangible results - this despite having commissioned an independent study to inform the reform agenda and having laid out a roadmap for the legal and institutional reform process.
Steps were taken towards revising the trade unions laws and preparing for new elections of union leaders. Trade unions had been dissolved in 2019 by a decree issued by the committee for dismantling the former regime, and temporary steering committees appointed to administer affairs during the interim period. The Ministry of Labor and Social Development convened a workshop around a new trade unions bill, following which the political and trade unionist forces signed a draft bill of the organization of the trade unions of the employees that was to be submitted to the Prime Minister, Dr. Abdulla Hamdouk for approval. Meanwhile some professions (Journalists, Prosecutors) and for the first time in Sudan the first democratic constituent assembly of the Public Prosecutors Office was convened in September.
Registration of new civil society organizations and renewals of certificates for existing organizations continued to be delayed as result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In River Nile and North Darfur states several CSOs have failed to renew their registration certificates and been sanctioned pending revisions being made to ensure they were not affiliated with the former NCP regime. This has negatively impacted funding for CSOs who’s donors require them to have a valid registration certificate before they can receive funding. Meanwhile donors and international partners with funding for Sudan have as a result of the substantial difference between the value of the Sudanese pound in the parallel market as opposed to the official rate set by the Central Bank of Sudan (a difference of over 400%), have seen their ability to fund projects and activities of CSOs diminish considerably. CBOS policy enforces strict regulations on foreign currency and requires all International donors and agencies to exchange their foreign currency at the official rate.
Freedom of peaceful assembly has continued to falter with protestors and demonstrations continuing to come under violent reprisal by police and armed authorities. A state of emergency continues to be imposed in the conflict affected states of Darfur, Kordofan and Blue Nile adversely impacting the right of citizens to assemble. In July, 9 people were killed and several injured during a peaceful sit-in demanding improvement to the security situation in the locality which was organized in Kutum locality of North Darfur state. In Khartoum, protests staged to convey discontent with the track that the revolution was taking under Prime Minister Handok’s leadership were met with violence by the police. Meanwhile, promises by the Government (and Prime Minister) to hold bring those responsible for killing protestors to justice have not been met, despite commissions being formed to investigate the incidents. Over a year following the formation of an investigation committee to investigate the violent dispersal of the June 2019 sit-in by the armed forces has also failed to present its findings or bring those responsible to account for their crimes.
Discrimination and exclusion persist among minority/marginalized groups such as IDPs and certain ethnic/tribal minorities, – this is especially the case in the conflict-affected regions of Darfur, Eastern Sudan and Kordofan. Minority religious groups and persons with disability remain outside the state civil service and only a handful occupy decision-making positions in Government.
In July, an assembly of persons with disability in Atbara protested a decision by state officials confiscating their offices, and in September another assembly of Persons with disability organized a protest in Khartoum calling for the dismissal of the Secretary General of the Union of Persons with Disabilities.
A women’s committee within the Alliance of the Freedom for Change Forces (FFC) had been established to push for the nomination of female candidates for vacant positions at different decision-making levels and government institutions. However, a higher appointments committee of the Alliance which is responsible for putting forward to the Government its final list of nominees for certain vacant government offices/positions is male dominated and most often ends up excluding female candidates. Nonetheless, during the nomination/selection of civilian governors to replace military governs in the states, two (2) women were appointed to the post of Governors – in Nahr Al Nil (Nile) state and Al-Shimaliya (Northern) state. The peace agreement initialed by the GoS and the SRF in Juba also reconfirmed the positive discrimination for women that was stipulated in the constitutional decree and which affords women 40% of the membership of the Transitional Legislative Council.
Several events took place and afforded an opportunity for citizens to engage meaningfully in consultation and dialogue with the government in shaping policies and decisions, however these were reportedly lacking in structure, inclusiveness, and transparency. The Juba peace negotiations saw some representation of women and internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the camps in Darfur. Citizens voices were also evident at the Sudan Economic Conference convened during the period 26 – 28 September 2020. Civil society representatives participated in consultations with the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) advance planning mission, however civil society groups and actors voiced reservations over the establishment of a national mechanism for coordination with the UNITAMS, criticizing the government for failure to have carried out a transparent and consultative process for selecting committee members representing Sudanese civil society.
Advocacy campaigns and efforts by civil society actors/groups advocating for improved political participation and respect for rights are frequently met with harassment and arrests. This is particularly true in the conflict-affected areas of Darfur and the Eastern region. On July 23rd, the Darfur Bar Association issued a statement condemning the arrests of human rights activists and some of its members who were carrying out investigations into violent incidents in Darfur.