International Media Ignore Sudanese Voices
AfricaFocus (Washington, DC)
April 22, 2007
Posted to the web April 23, 2007
The janjaweed militiamen are used "by a racist regime that is in many respects worse than the apartheid regime in South Africa, which at least had the dignity not to employ rape as a tactic of suppression." Did this scathing remark appear in the New York Times or Le Nouvel Observateur, two newspapers known for criticising the Sudanese government? No, surprising as it may seem, it was made in an editorial in the Citizen, a Khartoum daily, on 18 March. And there was no angry reaction from the government. – Reporters without Borders
The international media, says a new report from Reporters without Borders, systematically ignores the voices of the media inside Sudan and of Sudan’s diverse civil society, both in Khartoum and in Darfur itself. While the obstacles imposed on journalists by the government are real, in fact the media within the country is expanding its coverage and even critical comment. If the world is to have a more accurate picture of what is going on, it should pay attention to these voices.
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from the report. The full report is available at http://www.rsf.org
Another AfricaFocus Bulletin being sent out today contains excerpts from a policy paper by John Prendergast analyzing the history of pressure on the Khartoum regime, and how the international community is failing to learn from past successes. Instead, Prendergast charges, it is repeating ineffectual policies of "walking loudly and carrying a toothpick."
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Sudan and additional background, see http://www.africafocus.org/country/sudan.php
"Darfur : An investigation into a tragedy’s forgotten actors"
Reporters without Borders
After a fact-finding visit to Sudan from 17 to 22 March, Reporters Without Borders today issued a report entitled "Darfur: An investigation into a tragedy’s forgotten actors," in which the press freedom organisation tries to contribute new elements to the international debate about the tragedy which the peoples of western Sudan have been enduring.
The Reporters Without Borders team found that the Sudanese press, like the country’s society as a whole, is both active and diverse.
Even in Darfur, the team was able to talk to members of a very real civil society, one that is aware of the unfolding tragedy and the challenges it must face. The newspapers published in Khartoum are also very diverse and reflect the voices of Sudanese human rights activists, university researchers and other civil society actors, voices that find it hard to make themselves heard outside Sudan.
Contrary to the prevailing media image, Reporters Without Borders found that Sudan is not "a land of massacres, a terra incognita in which the 21st century’s first genocide is unfolding in Darfur, out of sight, without foreigners reporting what is happening, without any Sudanese voicing criticism." The reality is much more complicated and often contradictory.
Like many wars around the world, Darfur’s crisis poses complex coverage problems for both the national and international media.
The intrinsic problems – the large number of armed factions, the absence of a "front line," the hostile nature of the terrain and lack of a distinction between combatants and civilians – are deliberately compounded by the "bureaucratic fence" which the government in Khartoum has erected around the war zone to try to "regulate"and influence the work of the press (which the report describes). …
The international media react to these obstructions by approaching their coverage of Darfur in a spirit of "resistence" to a government perceived as "hostile," the report concludes. When reporting the worst atrocities, foreign journalists may sometimes offer a stereotyped image of Sudan focused solely on the suffering in Darfur, without taking account of the historical causes of the crisis or the solutions proposed by Sudanese civil society, whose very existence, diversity and commitment seem unknown to many of them.
In its conclusions, Reporters Without Borders recommends that the Sudanese government should take all necessary measures to open up the country to the foreign press and to increase a dynamic civil society’s freedom or action; that international organisations should take account of local realities, above all by supporting Sudanese civil society, and should overhaul their communication methods; and that the international media should not neglect the "forgotten actors" of the crisis, in order to portray Sudan in all its diversity and help it to resolve its internal contradictions.
Darfur : An investigation into a tragedy’s forgotten actors
Reporters Without Borders – Africa Desk
Obstacles, obstruction and danger
The international media turned its attention to Darfur because of the insurrection that began in February 2003. From the start of the rebellion, many security and administrative obstacles prevented foreign reporters from freely reporting on the situation in western Sudan, a region as big as France. Even when not completely blocking access to Sudanese territory, this "bureaucratic fence" often suffices to deter the international press, especially the broadcast media, which are particularly susceptible to the dictates of time and money and the "no pictures, no story" principle. Enclosing a vast country, Africa’s biggest, a country that is having to cope with several crises at the same time and with considerable international pressure, this "fence" is based on several provisions.
To start with, the Sudanese government issues visas on a case-by-case basis as it mistrusts international public opinion and assumes it to be hostile. News media and individual journalists are blacklisted if they are deemed to have crossed the red lines it has laid down, although it is not always clear what criteria determine the choice. It is impossible to get exact figures for visa refusals, especially as embassies often just ignore requests from journalists considered undesirable. The issuing of visas is a discretionary prerogative and in this sense, Sudan is no different from other countries.
The refusal to let a UN Human Rights Council special mission led by Jody Williams enter the country at the start of 2007 was just the tip of the iceberg. And it is no secret. Sudanese officials are often open about it, both in embassies and in Khartoum. A government source acknowledged to Reporters Without Borders that keeping a blacklist could be counter-productive but it was attributed to the fact that "many media had proved to be insulting towards the Sudanese government." …
Many journalists who are denied entry to Sudan or access to Darfur (which requires a special travel permit) cover the crisis in western Sudan from refugee camps in neighbouring Chad or illegally enter Sudan across the border, risking arrest and trial.
Anticipating the difficulties of getting a visa and travel permit, foreign journalists have often taken the easier option of "covering" Darfur’s tragedy from eastern Chad, solely on the basis of what refugees there tell them.
Whatever the reasons for this, any report on Darfur from refugee camps in Chad is inevitably incomplete. It can even misrepresent the reality if, for example, refugees who fled at the height of the atrocities in 2003-2004 describe a situation that has evolved since their forced departure. (The violence has spent itself in a land razed and emptied of its inhabitants, while the two initial rebel movements have split into many factions and, since the peace accord some of them signed with the government in May 2006 in Abuja, are fighting among themselves and are also carrying out atrocities on the civilian population.)
Khartoum, crossroads for special envoys
Most of the leading international media that cover Africa or the Arab countries, such as Al-Jazeera or Reuters, have a correspondent or a bureau in Khartoum. The Gulf-based satellite TV stations used to be punished for the least offence, because of their weight in the Muslim world, but now they benefit from a steadily expanding room for manoeuvre which the Sudanese authorities have also accorded to the national print media since the signing of an accord with the south. All the publishers and editors interviewed by Reporters Without Borders acknowledged enjoying a "degree of freedom" – the accepted term in Khartoum – that was unknown before 2005.
But visiting foreign correspondents have to meet many administrative requirements if they want to travel outside Khartoum. Permits to visit the Darfur region’s three capitals, El-Fasher, Nyala and El-Geneina, have to be approved by the security services. To get through the checkpoints at the airports of each of these three cities, foreigners much provide photocopies of the travel permit issued by an interior ministry office that controls the registration of foreigners. The permit is a sort of internal visa without which it is impossible to move about the country legally. The application form clearly states that it is forbidden to go outside of the Darfur region’s three capitals without prior permission from the Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC). …
Administrative requirements and restraints do not normally prevent journalists from moving about Darfur altogether but they render such movements complex and unpredictable and they function as a slip-knot ready to tighten as soon as the situation deteriorates.
On 7 November 2006, for example, the Sudanese government officially ceased to issue travel permits to foreign journalists after a resumption of fighting. A week after a decree to this effect was issued, the Sudanese air force violated the Abuja accords by bombing Birmaza, in North Darfur, in support of pro-government troops on the ground. The Darfur travel ban and resulting news blackout lasted three months. …
Once they are in the government’s sights, foreign journalists accredited in Khartoum are liable to be blacklisted. "I suppose they did not like my stories," Reporters Without Borders was told by a Khartoum-based journalist who was suddenly facing expulsion because his residence permit had not been renewed. "But I really don’t know if I am being personally targeted or if it is my employer," he added. …
"You can work despite all the hassles," said Opheera McDoom, the Reuters correspondent in Sudan, who has made many visits to the country’s troubled areas. …Discretion, patience and prudence are all needed, while familiarity with Sudan and the national language significantly increase a foreigner’s chances of not being caught by the many kinds of traps set by the Sudanese civil service and police.
For a long time, McDoom was the only foreign correspondent in Sudan to speak Arabic and she stresses the usefulness of this skill. "It is essential to be able to communicate with the security forces at a checkpoint, understand their questions and know how to negotiate your way out of a problem," she stressed. …
Finally, some foreign reporters have a limited grasp of local reality. "Foreign journalists come here for just two days and are insistent on going to one of the camps for displaced persons surrounding the city," said Mohammed Badawi, the North Darfur director of the Amel Centre, a local NGO that concerns itself with torture victims. "Getting all the permits entails lots of problems," adds this young Darfurian, who often functions as a guide or fixer for foreign journalists in their relations with the authorities and displaced persons. A foreign correspondent complained: "Some arrive in Sudan, and ask to see the rebels without really knowing who they are talking about. And then they leave."
[In Darfur] The only conceivable way of getting out of the cities is to travel with the UN, the AMIS or nongovernmental organisations. The UN and the AMIS sometimes take journalists with them to cover their activities. But the NGOs operating in the area (which with some 14,000 agents is the world’s biggest theatre of humanitarian operations) are more and more reluctant to do this, or even to talk to the media. They have good reason to fear having the HAC’s sights turned on them. …
In the absence of organised political structures or even a clear chain of command, it is hard in Darfur to identify rebel groups, which keep splitting. Aside from the "historic" armed movements, many new guerrilla groups have emerged since the signing of the Abuja accords in May 2006.
A living country
But the press freedom situation in Sudan is not just about these many obstacles. There are no longer any restrictions on the possession of satellite dishes and, like the rest of the Arab world, Sudanese viewers prefer to get their news from Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya than the state-owned Sudan TV. As for radio, RMC Moyen-Orient and the BBC have their own FM frequencies and are easy to tune into for most of the Khartoum public. Radio France Internationale’s French-language programmes can be heard throughout the country on RMC Moyen-Orient, as can Deutsche Welle’s Arabic, English and German-language programmes. At Nyala, the BBC World Service Trust, the British public broadcaster’s humanitarian wing, has even created Lifeline Darfur, an Arabic-language programme employing Sudanese journalists broadcasting 30-minute programmes twice a week for Darfur, eastern Chad and the northeast of the Central African Republic. The sole gap in radio broadcasting – and it is a significant one – is the fact that the only two privately-owned Sudanese stations whose broadcasts reach the entire country are essentially commercial and just carry back-to-back news bulletins. In all, there are seven privately-owned radio stations, all of them on the political sidelines.
With 35 dailies, six weeklies and three monthlies, Khartoum is a major city in which the independent press finally has a place after 10 years of slow progress and then sudden acceleration in the wake of the peace accord between the north and south in January 2005.
The news stands along the capital’s main avenues offer a diverse range of news of all tendencies in Arabic and English. All the newspaper editors that Reporters Without Borders met agreed that the Sudanese print media have enjoyed increasing freedom since the peace accord was signed with the south. "Censorship has been abolished and our room for manoeuvre is unquestionably more flexible than before," said Mahgoub Erwa, the editor of the independent daily Al-Sudani, which claims to have 100,000 readers.
(No daily has a print run of more than 40,000.) "Newspapers like ours, which do not toe the government line, are nonetheless subject to frequent intimidation, on the least pretext," he added.
Arbitrary use of article 130 of the code of criminal procedure, which punishes violations of the confidentiality of judicial investigations, has been a favourite weapon of the authorities since 2005. … The National Press Council insists that it is committed to improving the situation, even if the editors Reporters Without Borders met accuse it of being "weak" and "under the government’s control." It has began an overhaul of the press law that should see the light of day by the end of the year, and it boasts of only once taking action of its own accord against a newspaper. …
Lawsuits are nonetheless common and newspaper editors often have to go to the law courts. "That said, even if our judicial system is not perfect, it is relatively independent and anyway much better than in Iraq or Saudi Arabia, for example," Elbaz said. …
Precarious but real freedom
From the viewpoint of newspaper editors subjected to both political and financial pressure, the overall climate for the Khartoum press may seem rather poor. But the outspoken style of the editorialists and columnists, especially those writing for the pro-south English-language dailies, is quite astonishing in a country that less than 10 years ago was a relentless dictatorship. …
[On March 21, for example] John Lemi Stephen wrote a column in the Sudan Tribune warning the government against the brutality of its policies in Darfur: "Those who used the iron fist to impose hardship on the population in Darfur and other regions in Sudan will also have their own share one day; for it is written that the measure you give is the same you will receive from the people of this country."
Although these articles might seem quite scathing, they did not result in any lawsuits or prosecutions, perhaps because the English-language press has little impact in Khartoum. The Arabic-language media are monitored more closely. …
Caught in the democratic transition’s cross-winds, Khartoum’s newspapers are increasing their room for manoeuvre a bit more every year. "Sudan today has more freedom of expression and the no-go areas for the press are shifting as developments take place," said Eltyeb Hag Ateya, the head of Khartoum university’s Institute for Peace Research. "The newspapers are playing a significant role in society," he continued. "They are the ones that launch debates, analyse the news and question the government’s behaviour. It is thanks to them that we argue about Darfur." …
"The Sudanese press has conquered its freedom on its own," Ateya nonetheless insists. Al-Sudani’s editor proudly refers to a key moment when Darfur rebels attacked El-Fasher airport and the adjoining military base on 25 April 2003, and the Khartoum press announced a boycott on coverage of government activities in protest against the government’s ban on referring to the raid "while it rid the area of the rebels, which it expected to take two weeks." …
The Sudanese print media in fact reflect all sorts of viewpoints in columns, op-ed pieces, readers’ letters, analyses, reports and editorials on the issue of Darfur. Some articles blame the government for the "appalling crimes" committed by the janjaweed.
Others criticise the president’s obtuse behaviour towards the international community or maintain that, yes, the international community should try Sudanese. The editors that Reporters Without Borders met spoke with a great deal of freedom about the war that has emptied Darfur of at least a third of its inhabitants.
Everyone – Arabic speakers, English speakers, journalists and academics – agrees in their analysis of the background to the tragedy. Erwa of Al-Sudani said: "When the clashes began in El-Fasher in 2003, the government made the mistake of not taking the Darfur question seriously. It opted for a purely security and military approach to the problem and disparaged the political aspect. The international community, for its part, uses the mistakes and the crimes for its own purposes and not to help us, the Sudanese, to put an end to this war." Al-Sahafa’s Elbaz said: "Major crimes have been committed in Darfur by an irresponsible government. But the international community, obsessed by the terrifying image of the janjaweed, has not understood the crisis either and, as a result, proposes unrealistic solutions." Al-Ayam’s Salih added: "The foreign press is blinded and forgets the environmental and economic aspects of the Darfur question."
There is one criticism of the international community and its news media that is repeatedly heard from Sudanese journalists and academics – that their take on Sudan’s crises is superficial. "The crisis in Darfur has its origin above all in a serious deterioration in the region’s environment that encompasses the entire Sahel strip," said Khartoum university’s Ateya. "Successive droughts and the growing shortage of water and pastures, combined with a demographic explosion that has doubled the region’s population in 20 years has transformed a range of tribal conflicts into a political and ethnic confrontation," Ateya continued. …
In his view, the international press should not, for example, ignore the famine of the 1980s, the earlier war between agrarian and pastoral Fur tribes and nomadic, camel-raising, Arabic-speaking tribes at the height of the drought from 1985 to 1989. The foreign media should also bear in mind that there was a war in the west at the end of the 1990s between Masalit and "Arab" peasants, and that the Sudanese army already used "Arab" tribes to fight John Garang’s SPLA in the south, and then the Zaghawas, whose territory straddles the Sudan- Chad border. "Darfur’s recent past is a series of small, forgotten wars," Ateya said.
In Darfur, this viewpoint is defended at El-Fasher university, which has 10,000 students. There Reporters Without Borders met Abu Elshir Abdel Raharman Yousif, a young Darfurian professor who proudly showed his faculty’s library, where a handful of students were studying, and two rooms equipped with computers by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). "The environmental and demographic crisis in the three regions and the competition between pastoral and agricultural tribes underlies what has become an international crisis," he said. "The rebels and the Sudanese government have played a poisonous role in the region, exploiting ethnic and tribal conflicts and, above all, the poverty of this people." After the drought upset the existing equilibriums, the region’s people began leaving their ancestral lands in search of an alternative means of survival. "With firearms circulating easily, Darfur had a score of wars in the 1980s, pushing the tribes to create militias to defend their interests," Yousif said, adding: "Solve the problem of access to water in Darfur and the fighting will stop." …
"The current situation is creating major problems in the south, while implementation of the peace accord has ground to a halt," said the Sudan Tribune’s Ezechiel, whose newspaper’s motto is "CPA and the unity of Sudan." The war in Darfur is not a forgotten war, despite what the western press may sometimes say, he said. "If the international community continues to focus solely on the Darfur tragedy, without taking account of the Sudan problem in its entirety, we are heading for failure in the south and the west," Ezechiel added. El-Fasher university’s Yousif said: "Bearing in mind, too, the extreme fragmentation of the rebel groups, any solution to the Darfur conflict that is not based on the prior unification of the rebel groups is completely unrealistic and counterproductive." Khartoum university’s Ateya asked: "An international force would come and position itself between which groups, and to ensure implementation of what?" …
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