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State of Civic Sapce in Sudan: July - September 2019
This report provides an overview of some of the major developments and events (national, regional and international) that have influenced and impacted the observable course of freedom of expression in Sudan during the period July – September 2019.
During July - September 2019, the political, economic and security situation in Sudan witnessed major developments. Violent confrontations that had taken place during the previous period and that climaxed with the violent dispersal of the sit in in front of the military headquarters on June 3rd slowly gave way to the resumption of the stalled negotiations between the Freedom of Forces Change (FFC) and the Transitional Military Council (TMC). At the center of these negotiations was the transitional constitutional decree that was to govern the transitional period, and which was eventually signed on August 4th. Two weeks thereafter on 21 August Abdalla Hamdok was sworn in as Sudan's new Prime Minister and head of the transitional civilian government.
Meanwhile, civic space during this period went through several ups and downs that were initially characterized by continued violations and practices. In the wake of the violent dispersal of the sit in on June 3rd national television broadcast a film called “bats of darkness” which portrayed the revolutionary protestors as saboteurs and conspirators working to undermine security in the country. The director of national state television Essawi, who at the time sanctioned the airing of the film was later sacked from his position when the civilian government was sworn to office. Retaliatory measures were also taken against employees and university professors in government institutions who had responded to calls from the FFC for civil disobedience during the breakdown of negotiations between the TMC and the FFC in June. Some employee from the state-owned Saving & Social Development Bank found themselves transferred whilst others from the Ministry of Petroleum were attacked whilst peacefully protesting and condemning the violence of June 3rd.
The state of emergency, declared by ousted President Omer Al Bashir on 22 February 2019, and which imposed restrictions on freedom of expression, remained in force. The emergency order number 2 of 2019 and which prohibited the publication of articles or news items critical of the government and government officials continued to be enforced – though was being enforced less arbitrarily. However, when the new transitional government took office, these restrictions and violations on freedom of expression were quickly suppressed, and even newspapers and TV channels owned by personalities affiliated with the ousted regime continued to operate and function without interference from the new government.
A major setback for civic space was the continued shutdown of the internet. The shutdown, which had gone on for weeks, was the longest in Sudan and was ordered by the TMC under the guise of security concerns when in fact it was intended to disrupt the sharing of footage and information pertaining to the dispersal of the sit-in on 3 June by security and military forces. The shutdown was only lifted towards the end of June and on September 3rd a court ruling ordered two of the biggest telecommunication providers (MTN and Sudani) to publish a formal apology on the front pages of all newspapers to their customers.
Another encouraging development that bodes well for civic space and related to the telecommunications sector was a reversal of an earlier decree issued by the TMC and that placed the oversight of the Telecommunications Corporation which regulates and oversee the sector directly under the Ministry of Defense. Following the formation of the transitional government and denouncement of this decree by civil society activists, the decision was cancelled, and the stewardship of the telecommunications corporation was transferred to the Sovereign Council.
Further positive signs for civic space and more specifically freedom of expression in the country has been the return of several international news networks and channels who had previously been banned from having on-the-ground coverage in Sudan (such as Al-Jazeera) or others who had left Sudan on their own accord given the unfavorable and repressive environment such as the BBC or Radio Monte Carlo.
On the regional and international fronts, the role of the African Union in exerting pressure on the parties to move speedily forward following the impasse between the FFC and the TMC in the wake of the violence of June – July, was applauded by civil society and the international community. Civil society also played a huge advocacy role with the AU special envoy who also lobbied, through the AU PSC, for the launch of transparent investigations into the reported killing of protesters in June–July 2019. Other international actors who had played a supportive role that eventually led to the signing of the Constitutional Charter for the 2019 Transitional Period included the United Nations, European Union and the Sudan Troika, and more importantly Sudan’s neighboring country Ethiopia.
September also witnessed the ground-breaking development of the signing of an agreement between the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet (l) and Sudan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Asma Mohamed Abdalla for the opening of a UN Human Rights Office in Sudan. Apart from the capital, the agreement paves the way for field offices to safeguard citizens’ rights to be opened in Darfur, Blue Nile, Southern Kordofan and East Sudan. The signing ceremony took place in New York at UN Headquarters, during the High-Level week of the General Assembly.