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State of Civic Space in Sudan: January - March 2020
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 civic space in Sudan during the period January – March 2020. The report is based on a review and analysis of the news alerts published on the “Sudan Civic Space Monitor” as well as analysis provided by Sudanese civil society experts and practitioners from different backgrounds and areas of expertise.
January to March 2020, witnessed the following events and developments that have directly/indirectly influenced and impacted the observable course of civic space in the country.
Progress on the five tracks of the peace negotiations taking place in the S.Sudan capital of Juba between the Government of Sudan (GoS) and the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) which includes the armed groups from Darfur and the Two Areas. Peace arrangements for the three tracks of Eastern, Central and Northern regions were signed between December 2019 and February 2020, whilst negotiations on the Darfur and the Two Areas track continue. Civil society had its presence and participation through various forms, with participation from women, victims of the conflict, and representatives from the Civil Forces Alliance.
Continued shortages in the provision of basic commodities such as fuel, electricity and bread and the failure of the Transitional Government (TG) to introduce effective policies or measures that would curb the deteriorating economic conditions have fueled public discontent and led to several protests and demonstrations. By March, the rate of inflation according to the Central Bureau of Statistics stood at an all-time high of 71.36% and the value of the Sudanese Pound continued to depreciate rapidly.
A meeting between Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and head of the Sovereign Council Abdel-Fatah Al Burhan on February 3rd 2020, sparked tensions between the military and the civilians elements of the Transitional Government (TG). Another incident that sparked tensions during this period was a letter sent by the Prime Minister to the UN Secretary General requesting international support with Sudan’s peacebuilding efforts and support to the TG with the implementation of the transitional agenda. The PM letters requested “the United Nations to seek a Security Council mandate to establish, as soon as possible, a Chapter VI peace support operation in the form of a special political mission with a strong peacebuilding component".
In mid-March, the Sudanese authorities began to put in place measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and announced a nation-wide health emergency. The subsequent closure of airports (as well as the border crossings with neighboring countries) and the banning of any form of gathering or meeting have posed a threat to civic space. Moreover, the restrictions imposed as a result of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic have curtailed the responsiveness of civil society and exposed a weakness in their ability to adapt and find new ways in which they could continue to deliver their services and programs.
Both freedom of expression as well as freedom of association were heavily impacted by the work of the Committee for the dismantling of the June 30 regime, and which passed several decisions which resulted in the closure of civil society organizations and the confiscation of their assets, and placed a number of newspapers and television channels under its control. Other key issues related to the latter dimension of civic space (freedom of expression) has been the increased use of social media platforms in spreading fake news and incitement/defamation of people from across the spectrum – politicians, activists, government officials etc.
The right to assemble peacefully has also come under attack in numerous occasions, especially in the conflict area of Darfur where a state of emergency presides over the region. Moreover, earlier in the year the head of the Sovereign Council suggested that the state would be passing legislation to regulate the holding of protests and demonstrations.
Freedom of Association
The “law for dismantling the June 30th regime and removing empowerment” was passed in December 2019 with the intent of addressing one of the important tasks of the transitional agenda in Sudan, that of dissolving the National Congress Party (NCP) and dismantling the whole system of empowerment that was the NCP has assembled during their 30-year rule of the country. In this regard, several decisions were issued by state institutions and structures that dissolved and confiscated the assets of civil society organizations/networks identified as being affiliated with the former NCP regime. In January, a ministerial decree issued by the Minister of Youth and Sports, Walaa El Boushi dissolved the Board of Directors of the Sudan Camel Race Association and had its assets transferred to the Ministry. Other CSOs forcibly dissolved or that have had their leadership removed under this law include the Islamic Dawa Organization, and the Sudanese Lawyers Union which were served with similar decisions from the Committee for the dismantling of the June 30 regime.
Restrictions on foreign currency accounts held by CSOs were introduced by the Central Bank of Sudan in January 2020. The CBOS foreign accounts regulation issued in January 2020 restricts the use and access of CSOs to their foreign currency accounts held with local banks. It instructs local banks to only allow their CSO clients access to 50% of any incoming funds or deposits made to their foreign currency accounts, the remaining 50% to be sold to the Central Bank of Sudan at the official exchange rate and the equivalent amount in Sudanese Pounds to be deposited to the CSOs local currency account. The regulation goes even further and only allows payments from the CSOs foreign currency account towards specific purposes, these being (i) the import of goods related to activities for which funds have been received, (ii) payments to foreign workers and consultants employed with the organization, (iii) currency sale to the banks, and (iv) cash withdrawals to meet travel costs and which are to be supported with adequate supporting documentation. Civil society activists and representatives have decried the decision by the CBOS and described it as piracy, warning that it will only force CSOs to pursue irregular and unscrupulous ways to avoid the restrictions and gain access to their foreign currency funds, and in the process undermining recently self-regulatory efforts of improving transparency and accountability by some CSOs.
The Neighborhood Resistance Committees (described as the guardians of the April 2019 revolution) represent an indigenous form of CSO that was essentially born in response to the oppressive measures adopted by the former regime in curbing the revolutionary movement in late 2018 and 2019. Following the revolution, they have become key players in upholding the gains and demands of the revolution and have supplanted the popular committees from the old regime, which have been accused of corruption. Despite being supportive of the transitional civilian government, they prioritize their watchdog role over the actions and policies of the government and have on numerous occasions led protests and demonstrations demanding certain reforms or actions be taken by the government. This has led to them being increasingly targeted by the security authorities with increasing reports recently of some of their members being arrested and harassed.
The Ministry of Labor & Social Development/ Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) embarked on a series of measures aimed at improving the operational and legal environment impacting civil society and the implementation of humanitarian assistance efforts in the country. A committee formed by the Commissioner of HAC in February was tasked with overseeing institutional reforms of the HAC convened a two-day workshop in late March that brought together multiple stakeholders to deliberate on the challenges and necessary reforms for the sector. Meanwhile, several decrees were issued by the Humanitarian Aid Commission to ease travel restrictions for international organizations. Additionally, some of the rigid requirements and processes that were in place because of the 2006 law were relaxed and were being enforced with less rigor. An example of this was a relaxation of stringent procedures governing the registration (or renewal of registration) of national CSOs. Otherwise, other important laws such as the law reform of the legal system, the law of political parties, the law of trade unions, the law of the bar and other laws impacting the right to associate are still pending amendments or replacement.
Freedom of Assembly
Despite the suspension of laws that had previously restricted the freedom to assembly peacefully, more specifically, the Public Order Law and National Security law, the unstable economic, political and security conditions that prevailed over this period sustained some emergency measures that curtailed the exercise of peaceful assemblies, demonstrations and vigils. Moreover, the application of emergency laws in some of the troubled areas has also contributed to obstruction of exercising the right to peacefully assemble.
Under the pretext of security, Darfur states have witnessed numerous and clear restrictions against freedom of assembly. In February, the governor of Central Darfur State issued a decision imposing a curfew in the Azum locality, and forbidding any assemblies or demonstrations, blockage of roads, and threatening violators with a 6-month prison sentence and a fine of 10,000 Sudanese pounds.
In March excessive force was used by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) to break up peaceful demonstrations in the city of Zalingei in Central Darfur state, and resulting in the wounding of 7 citizens. Protestors had wanted to deliver a note to the headquarters of the state government in which they condemned the killing of a citizen by armed militias in one of the IDP camps. Within the same context, and 2 days following the peaceful protest being violently broken up, the security authorities in the state arrested 7 persons from Morni and Doha IDP camps, against the background of the protests that had taken place in the state capital.
And in Misterha village in Kabkabiya locality, North Darfur state, leaders of the Mahamid tribe were arrested against the backdrop of a meeting of the tribe, that demanded the release of the tribal leader, Sheikh Musa Hilal, who has been detained along with a number of his tribesmen since 2017, and his recognition as the legitimate representative of the tribe in Sudan.
This trend continued in other states of Darfur – in Al-Deain (East Darfur) security forces arrested several persons identified as leaders of the former NCP, after they organized a protest calling for overthrow of the Transitional Government. Charges so sedition were lodged against them after which they were released on bail.
In the capital Khartoum and some cities, activities, demonstrations, and protests being led by the Neighborhood Resistance Committees were confronted with force and dispersed and had their leaders arrested. In February, a peaceful protest in Khartoum was violently confronted by the police who used excessive forces to break it up, resulting in more than 53 casualties, according to a statement issued by the Ministry of Health. The protest was reportedly organized by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) – and called for the reinstatement of soldiers forced into retirement for offering support for the 2019 revolution.
Security authorities in the city of Kosti, White Nile state fired bullets and tear gas at demonstrators sympathetic with the Neighborhood Resistance Committees who were demanding the removal of the Governor accusing him of supporting the remnants of the dictatorial regime, and his failure to address problems related to the provision of basic services in the state. A few days later, on February 13, one of the wounded protestors succumbed to her wounds in the town of Kenana neighboring Kosti.
Freedom of Expression
Freedom of expression was affected particularly due to measures taken by the Committee for the dismantling of the June 30 regime, which in January issued decrees that placed several television channels and newspapers it had deemed were affiliated with the previous regime under its control. Among these was Teeba TV channels, Al-Shorouk TV Channel, Al-Rai Al-Aam and Al-Sudani newspapers, and the Holy Qur’an radio channel.
Under the supervision of the Under Secretary of the Ministry of Information, major administrative and technical changes (that included replacement of programming staff and a rehaul of the programmes) were undertaken to the National Television. Similarly, Blue Nile TV channel as well as Sudania S24 TV channel, both private sector channels were made to undertake changes in both their administrative and programming teams, where presenters and programmers that were prominent during the time of the previous regime were removed.
The deteriorating economy and loss of value of the Sudanese pound has carried across to the telecommunications sector where some of the networks increased their prices for internet/data services. In February, Zain Telecommunications which controls 42% of the market and has more than 12 million active customers surprised subscribers with large increases in its internet service fees. This has had a negative impact on the affordability of accessing information through the internet as well as increasing costs of internet-based news operations.
Meanwhile, the US-imposed sanctions on Sudan continues to restrict access to some of the much-needed internet services and products. Communication platforms such as Zoom, and the Google suite of applications as well as several other networking utilities are only accessible in Sudan via the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), and these only work in locations/institutions with a good quality of service and high-end internet and data packages.
There were a few incidents where journalists and social media users experienced interference and harassment during this reporting period. In West Darfur state, and against the backdrop of the emergency laws imposed on the region, security authorities in March arrested a political activist for posting on writing on her Facebook page a post on corruption around the states ration of subsidized fuel. The Facebook activist was arrested for several hours during which she was interrogated and subsequently released.
In February, police in Khartoum state filed a defamation suit against a theater director (Yasser Al-Tajani) for his release of a play called (Forced Recruitment), documenting a massacre committed against citizens during the defunct regime, in one of the camps in eastern Khartoum.
In March police interrogated a journalist for investigating a corruption case, and while she was in the police department, she was detained for photographing the items/material which had been confiscated from her. When her editor and the director of administration of the newspaper tried to intervene on her behalf, they were also arrested on the pretext of obstructing the police work.
There has been a noticeable rise in the use of social media platforms (Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter) to discredit and bully/intimidate people from across the spectrum – politicians, activists, government officials etc. The issue of revision to the school curriculums attracted a lot hate speech and incitement by Salafists groups against Director of the Curriculum Department at the Ministry of Education. Fake news has also been on the increase and has become a source of major concern and distraction to the government of Prime Minister Hamdok.
In support of the media sector and with the support of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Sudanese Development Initiative (SUDIA) in collaboration with Canale France International (CFI) organized a five-day forum in Khartoum on the Sudanese media during the transitional period. The organizers sought to provide a platform for Sudanese and other regional experts to interact with Sudanese media practitioners to debate, discuss and deliberate on some of the pertinent issues that Sudanese media and journalism have to grapple with during the transitional period and beyond. Topics covered a range of issues which touch on both the generic fundamental issues like legal and constitutional frameworks for media and containing fake news, as well as Sudan-centric issues and aspects such as the role of media in national reconciliation.