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Civic Space Situation Report: January - March 2021
Civic Space in Sudan regressed from Restricted in Q4 2020 to Repressed in Q1 of 2021.
Key events taking place in the first quarter of 2021 which had an impact on civic space in Sudan.
February 8, 2021 saw a reshuffle in the government’s cabinet of Ministers with new Minsters from the Sudan Revolutionary Front replacing several outgoing ministers. The formation of the new cabinet of Ministers comes as a product of the Juba peace agreement signed in October 2020. Out of twenty-five new ministers announced, all but five ministers were replaced. Two other important armed factions who remain outside the Juba Peace Agreement are the Sudan Liberation Movement-North led by Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu, and the Sudan Liberation Movement-Army, which is led by Abdel-Wahid Nour.
On the recommendation of the Minister of Justice, Prime Minister Dr. Abdullah Hamdok pursuant to the provisions of the constitutional document for the transitional period of 2019 -issued on 20 January a decision establishing the National Human Rights Mechanism. Some of the most important tasks of the mechanism include engaging with civil society actors in the field of human rights, convening public consultations, and ensuring that women, youth, persons with special needs, internally displaced persons, refugees and civil society are represented in the preparation of Sudan's periodic reports on human rights.
On February 21, 2021, the Central Bank of Sudan sharply devalued the national currency and announced a new policy to "unify" the official and black-market exchange rates. The CBOS revised the indicative rate of the Sudanese pound to the dollar from 55 to 375. The move came in observance of the 2021 budget and the recommendations of the IMF-supported reform program for the Sudanese economy.
March 26th saw the clearing of Sudan’s debt arrears with the World Bank paving the way for the country to access close to $2 billion in grants from the International Development Association (IDA). The move represents a breakthrough and puts the country on the path to substantial debt relief, economic revival, and inclusive development. Clearance of Sudan’s arrears to the World Bank was made possible through a $1.15 billion bridge loan from the U.S. government.
The Transitional Government in Sudan and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N Abdel-Aziz Al Hilo) signed a Declaration of Principles (DOP) on 28 March 2021. In the DoP the two parties agreed to “the establishment of a civil, democratic, federal state in Sudan, wherein, the freedom of religion, the freedom of belief and religious practices and worship shall be guaranteed to all Sudanese people by separating the identities of culture region, ethnicity, and religion from the State”.
Freedom of Expression and Access to Information
Rating: Restricted | Trend: Deteriorating
Freedom of Expression deteriorated and remain restricted by the first quarter of 2021, mostly a result of the continued judicial harassment and intimidation against journalists and rights activists. There were several cases of bloggers, poets and journalists having cases lodged against them and being judicially harassed as result of their writings. There was the case of the young poet Yousif Al-Doash, who summoned by the Press and Publications Prosecutor in March for question about a poem that he had presented on the TV channel S24. Charges against him had been levied by the Sovereign Council. On 15 February 2021, the Sudanese Journalists Union released a statement denouncing the harassment and arrests of Journalists under the accusation of” inciting strife and undermining the constitutional order”
No progress has been made on the legal environment impacting freedom of expression. The Press and Publications Act of 2008 remains in place and other laws of direct relevance to Freedom of expression such as the Security Law and/or the Cybercrimes Law continue to be used to obstruct access/practice of this right. A Committee for Media Sector Reform established in 2020 by the former Minister of Information has failed to make any progress and is seen as being partisan and made up of non-professionals. On a more positive note, licenses/permits have been issued for several new newspapers (7) and radio broadcasters.
Cases of disinformation were noted during the quarter. These surfaced on both the print media as well as on social media platforms. On March 12th, SUNA published a statement from the Governor of Al Gezira state in which he denied information presented in a circular issued by the SPLM-SRF on 11 March describing outcomes from a meeting that was held with the Governor. An example of this was a story of a Congolese women who was reportedly producing indecent/sexual films inside the country and who was arrested along with her film crew.
Disinformation is also being fueled by the limited access to information on government policies and decisions. A budget monitoring coalition of civil society organizations and activists disclosed reluctance on the part of the Ministry of Finance to provide them with data and information pertaining to the 2021 budget. Confusion and disinformation also revolved around the supposed closure of schools due to COVID-19.
March saw a significant increase on the price of internet/data services across all service providers and telecoms companies. Data services on Sudani increased by almost 30 %. Access to the internet has also been hampered considerably due to an unprecedented outage of electricity across the whole country. In Darfur internet connectivity is sporadic and services were shut down during the incidences of ethnic violence that happened in the region. Protests were also staged in March in front of the National Telecommunications Authority by the ‘Manasir' Youth Assembly complaining about the poor internet connectivity in the Northern state.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION AND ASSEMBLY
Rating: Restricted | Trend: Neutral
Freedom of Association and Assembly remained unchanged during the first quarter of 2021 and there were no changes to any of the important laws such as the civil society law and the trade unions law.
Unionists have been critical of the animosity they are facing from authorities and the increasing infringements by government on their independence. Several instances were reported of existing union steering committees being dissolved or replaced by government-imposed committees continued. In January the Committee for Dismantlement of the NCP regime dissolved the Steering Committee of the Khartoum Water Authority Union following a strike organized by the unionists. And in February the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) issued a letter to the Prime Minister of Sudan Abdulla Handok, calling on him to reverse the continued dissolution of trade unions, and cease the arbitrary arrests of trade unionists.
A new set of regulations severely restricting civil society organizations registered under the Sudan Voluntary and Humanitarian Works Act of 2006 and bearing the approval of the outgoing Minister of Labor and Social Development (Lena Al Shiekh) surfaced on social media in late February 2021. Following an outcry and condemnation of the new regulations by civil society, the new incoming Minister (Ahmed Adam Bakhiet) issued a ministerial decree on 10 March revoking the new regulations and reverting to the 2013 regulations.
Tax benefits on customs duties for goods/items imported by civil society organizations were rescinded by the new Finance Minister on 15 February. Meanwhile, the devaluation of the Sudanese Pound against the dollar was welcomed by civil society organizations who prior to the decision were being forced to exchange their foreign currency at a reduced rate of 55 SDG to the dollar whereas the real value of the dollar was 380 SDG in the parallel market.
Protests throughout the country continued during the first quarter of 2021 and were almost always met with a heavy-handed response by the police who use tear gas and live ammunition to disperse them. Peaceful protests that were dispersed by police took place in Blue Nile state on 19 January, and in Al Geddaref state on 4 February. Kassala saw recurring protests that were violently dispersed by police on 23 February, and again on 16 March. Other places where protests violently dispersed by police were reported in Khartoum on 20 February and South Darfur on 31 January.
Rating: Repressed | Trend: Improving
The Declaration of Principles signed between the Government and Sudan’s People Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) that took place in Juba, South Sudan on 28 March 2021 included articles that spoke to issues of non-discrimination and inclusion. Articles 2.1, 2.3 and 2.6 recognized the ethnic, religious and cultural diversity in Sudan and the need to safeguard and guarantee the rights of minorities.
The influx of refugees along the Ethiopian- Sudan border continues with an estimated 61,000 refugees having been reported to date. In response to the crisis, the UNDP Sudan office with its implementing partners have undertaken measures – expanding health infrastructure and deploying mobile clinics, to address the limited healthcare services and infrastructure in the area and reduce the pressure on existing health facilities that cater to both refugees as well as local communities.
On 30 March 2021, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)—together with 38 international and national partners—launched the 2021 inter-agency refugee funding appeal for Sudan. The US$574 million response plan will assist over one million refugees in Sudan to meet their basic needs, bolster self-reliance, and realize their rights.
24 March saw the launch of the ‘Only Together We Complete the Picture’ campaign. The campaign launched by the International Office for Migration (IOM) in Sudan highlights messages of solidarity, acceptance, and respect, with the aim of fostering a culture that values diversity and the contribution that migrants bring to Sudanese society, while emphasizing how we are all united as human beings.
Rating: Restricted | Trend: Neutral
The Ministry of Justice convened events that brought together multiple stakeholders including civil society organizations to discuss proposed laws. These included a consultative session on proposed legislation for the National Human Rights Commission Act for 2021 and the Anti-Corruption National Commission Law. In an unprecedented step the Ministry of Justice has also began to post announcements on its website welcoming feedback from the public on some of the proposed laws under consideration.
During March, SUDIA (Sudanese Development Initiative) together with civil society organization partners from Darfur and the Eastern region carried out a campaign under the slogan ‘Haqaq Tasharik’ or your Right to Participation. The campaign which lasted for several weeks involved multiple stakeholders and promoted advocacy efforts of civil society for inclusive democratic reform processes with a focus on reforms of the Sudan Voluntary and Humanitarian Works Act of 2006.
In Red Sea state there were demands for increased participation of representatives from the state in government ministries and constitutional positions of the state. Along the same lines, the Coordination committee of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) in Red Sea state accused unnamed parties of meddling in the nominees that were put forward by the committee for appointment to the national assembly and replacing them with nominees based on narrow partisan perceptions. In late March the Beja Youth Group in eastern Sudan staged protests calling on the Civil service appointments committee to apply a policy of positive discrimination in favor of persons from Red Sea state in appointments being made to the state-level Chamber of Taxation.
In response to the lack of observance of the quota for women in the formation of the new government, ‘Gidamiya” campaign launched by the Guardians Initiative filed a constitutional challenge in the Constitutional Court and wrote a letter to the Prime Minister. According to the filing, the representation of women in the new cabinet of Ministers formed by the Prime Minister was 15.3% - far less than the 40% stipulated in the constitutional decree.
An Arabic version of this report can be viewed here.