When Sudan’s military ousted the country’s civilian government in October it quickly set its sights on the media.
Authorities shuttered at least 36 radio stations in the first two weeks following the coup over their reporting on protests against the Sudanese junta.
A period of instability followed during which Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was briefly reinstated before standing down in January after failing to reach a settlement between military and civilian leaders.
But months of protest and unrest were marked by an uptick in media harassment and attacks.
Between October 2021 and March 2022, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor documented 55 violations against media. The Geneva-based rights group recorded arbitrary detention, harassment, raids and shutdowns of media organizations, and physical and psychological assaults.
“Restrictions were imposed on freedom of expression, there were repeated internet blackouts, and punitive measures were enforced against media outlets that covered the popular protests and human rights violations that followed the coup,” the report said.
Attacks on the press are part of a broader assault on freedoms in the country, according to Cameron Hudson, a Sudan expert at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.
“The military is tightening its hold on power but doing it in a way as to undermine perceived enemies of the state. And those are democratic protesters, outspoken politicians, and members of the free press,” he told VOA.
Around 90 people have been killed and hundreds injured since October 2021, according to local and international rights groups.
Sudan’s embassy in Washington didn’t respond to VOA’s request for comment.
Observers say Sudan has experienced major security uncertainty since the overthrow of longtime leader Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. This uncertainty, they say, has been particularly challenging for journalists.
“Even though the media played a major role in toppling the former regime of al-Bashir, unfortunately there is still crackdown on journalists and media outlets,” said Amany El Sayed, who anchors a weekly show on the national Sudan TV.
“In Sudan today, you can criticize the government, including ministers and other high-ranking officials, just like what I’m doing now by speaking with you. But it seems the military particularly targets those who cover anti-coup protests,” El Sayed told VOA from Khartoum.
Article 57 of Sudan’s constitutional document, adopted in October 2019, stipulates that the state “guarantees freedom of the press.”
But in a fluid political and security environment, “the margin of freedom that journalists have can easily be disrupted by those who don’t tolerate critical voices,” El Sayed said.
“Journalists could be beaten and arrested, and even their families could be threatened if a certain authority didn’t like their reporting,” she added.
Crackdown before the coup
Violence directed at journalists is not new in Sudan.
The transitional authority that came to power after al-Bashir threatened, harassed, and detained some journalists under the pretext of “eliminating remnants of the former regime,” El Sayed said.
In some cases, journalists are targeted for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ali El Dali, a 39-year-old Sudanese journalist, recalled how a meet-up with friends at a café in the capital Khartoum last August escalated into a violent confrontation.
The friends witnessed a crash between a military vehicle and civilian car, but when military personnel tried to blame the other driver, Dali stepped in.
“Two cars collided right before our eyes,” Dali told VOA in a phone interview. “Because I witnessed what happened, I had to interfere and tell them it wasn’t right to put the blame on someone who wasn’t at fault.”
Traffic police arrived and Dali says they too determined that the military vehicle was responsible for the accident.
“In order to retaliate against me, the military guys asked me to remove my car, which was parked in front of a nearby building.” Dali said. “The building apparently was theirs, but it didn’t have any sign, yet they still told me I wasn’t allowed to park there.”
When Dali refused, he says the personnel asked him to go with them for questioning, but he refused.
The argument heated up when they learned Dali was a journalist, he said.
“All five men attacked me, threw me to the ground and started beating me. I passed out and only opened my eyes at the hospital.”
Dali spent 10 days at the hospital during which a delegation from the military intelligence agency visited and offered him a formal apology.
The incident was widely reported in Sudanese and Arab media.
Dali, who now works with a press office that provides services to international news organizations, filed a lawsuit over the attack. An arrest warrant was also issued.
But Dail says, “[The] coup happened, and everything has been stalled since then.”
The United States on March 21 imposed sanctions on Sudan’s Central Reserve Police, a militarized police unit, for human rights abuses against protesters.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. was “taking this step to hold to account those perpetrating abuses and to deter future violence.
“We call for an immediate end to unjust detentions of civil society activists, politicians, journalists, cultural figures, and humanitarian workers; closure of media outlets; continued violence against peaceful protesters including sexual violence and attacks on medical facilities; and communications blackouts,” he said in a statement.
Experts say such measures are not enough.
“Since the announcement of the sanctions, there has been no discernible change in the behavior of the Reserve Police or the military junta in general,” analyst Hudson said.
If anything, he said, “The group has become more brutal and brazen, and less afraid of the consequences of their actions as a result of these sanctions.”
Hudson referred to photos shared last week by Sudanese and regional media in which members of the Central Reserve Police were seen using machetes and knives to attack protesters in Khartoum.
“That’s why I have said from the very beginning that sanctions need to target individuals in the leadership structure of the military junta. Those are people who deploy troops to carry out these crimes,” Hudson said.