The coup in Sudan and a dismal moment for press freedom across North Africa

Yesterday—after two years of promising, fragile transition toward democracy—Sudan fell victim to a military coup. Military leaders seized power, arresting Abdalla Hamdok, the civilian prime minister in a transitional government; Hamdok’s office called on the Sudanese people to take to the streets, where soldiers met protesters with violence, fatally shooting at least seven people and injuring well over a hundred more. According to the information ministry, soldiers also raided the state broadcaster and detained staffers there; the Sudan Journalists Network reported that other journalists have been arrested, too. As the coup unfolded, the internet went down across swathes of the country—a tactic that recalled the intense censorship tactics of Omar al-Bashir, who held power in Sudan for thirty years prior to being toppled in 2019. The work of transitioning to press freedom in Sudan was far from complete even prior to the coup, and its prospects now look bleak. “At a critical moment in the country’s history,” Justin Shilad, a Middle East and North Africa researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said, “journalists must be free to report the news and have full access to telecommunications services to do it.”

The Middle East and North Africa region, as defined by CPJ, contains six African countries aside from Sudan—Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia—across which the press-freedom picture looks particularly bleak right now. Of these countries, Reporters Without Borders, another press-freedom group, ranks Egypt as being the worst: the country ranks 166th on its 2021 World Press Freedom Index, out of a hundred and eighty countries and territories worldwide. As Ruth Margalit reported for CJR in 2019, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Egypt’s president, long ago instituted a a crackdown on “fake news” that “may be the most brutal, and the most foreboding” anywhere in the world, and RSF declared earlier this year that the country now has “less press freedom than ever.” Sisi’s regime is among the world’s most prolific jailers of journalists, and has arrested at least seven reporters on false-news and related charges this year alone. Next month, Hossam Bahgat, an investigative journalist, will go on trial for criticizing an elections official in a tweet.

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Only two of the countries listed above make the top one hundred of RSF’s index. One is Mauritania, which sits in ninety-eighth place but was in the top fifty as recently as 2016. During a presidential election in 2019, officials shut off internet access and arrested numerous journalists and bloggers; despite promises, since then, to institutionalize press freedom, detentions have continued into this year. The other is Tunisia, which sits seventy-third in RSF’s rankings and has, as I wrote earlier this year, been a relative success story for democracy and press freedom in the decade since the Arab Spring. The situation for journalists, however, deteriorated somewhat after Kais Saied took over as president in 2019: last year, the authorities prosecuted two bloggers who criticized Tunisia’s pandemic response, while in the spring, police officers broke up a protest called by staffers at the state news agency after a government ally was installed as its director. (For more background on the agency, read Layli Foroudi’s piece for CJR.) Then, in July, Saied sacked the prime minister and suspended Parliament; he has since sought to consolidate his personal power. In the days after the power grab began, police raided the offices of Al Jazeera and kicked out its staff, and also harassed a number of journalists in the streets, including a team from the New York Times. (Vivian Yee, a Times reporter, was subsequently granted an interview with Saied, who proceeded to lecture her on the erosion of American democracy; she wrote afterward that he had used her as a “prop” for a video that he posted to social media.) This month, police shuttered a TV station and arrested a host.

In neighboring Algeria, protesters who have taken to the streets, starting in 2019, to demand their own transition to democracy have met with a campaign of repression that has extended to members of the press. As I reported in February, officials there had made a habit of arresting reporters and blocking the websites of independent news outlets. At the time of that writing, the authorities had just released a few dozen activists as well as Khaled Drareni, a prominent journalist, from jail; however, in the months since, they’ve detained at least twenty-five journalists—many of whom, including Drareni again, were covering protests at the time—for spells ranging from a few hours to six months. Over the summer, officials revoked the accreditations of Al-Arabiya, a Saudi channel, and France 24, having previously accused the latter network of “bias” in its protest coverage; the military also broadcast a “documentary” on state TV accusing foreign powers, including France, of using the media to advance a conspiracy to subjugate Algeria. In August, the authorities took Lina TV, an independent channel, off the air, citing supposed licensing irregularities. Last week, Le Monde reported that officials are tightening their clampdown on dissent further still.

Of all the press-freedom violations in North Africa this year, those in Morocco have perhaps attracted the most international attention and condemnation. The country has long had a tough climate for independent journalism, but officials’ anti-press tactics appear to have become more insidious in recent years. Several journalists have been prosecuted on sex-crime charges that rights groupsand, in at least one case, their supposed accusers—say are bogus, a pattern that deepened over the summer when two reporters, Soulaiman Raissouni and Omar Radi, were respectively sentenced to five and six years in prison. The former became seriously unwell after initiating a hunger strike in protest of his treatment. Last year, Amnesty International found that the latter’s phone had previously been infected with Pegasus, a spyware tool marketed to state actors by an Israeli firm; this year, the Pegasus Projectan international journalistic collaboration coordinated by Forbidden Stories—concluded, based on leaked data, that the Moroccan government appears to have identified thousands of people as targets for similar surveillance, including the French President Emmanuel Macron and thirty-five journalists, one of whom, a prominent French editor, found that his phone was compromised after he visited Morocco for a conference. Last week, Cole Stangler and Abdellatif El Hamamouchi reported, for The Intercept, that Morocco’s surveillance apparatus is getting tougher, and doesn’t stop at Pegasus. “Though the Moroccan state is often regarded as less repressive than many of its neighbors,” they wrote, “critics at home feel that it is in the midst of a dangerous authoritarian drift.”

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Of the countries listed above, the second worst on RSF’s press-freedom index, one place ahead of Egypt, is Libya, where the long-serving dictator, Moammar Qaddafi, was overthrown during the Arab Spring, and killed ten years ago last week. Qaddafi oversaw an extremely restrictive media climate—in his infamous “Green Book,” he dismissed press freedom as part of the “problem of democracy”—and his ouster prompted an initial flowering of independent media, but the decade since has seen fresh dangers and retrenchment. Amid a brutal and messy civil war, armed militias killed, kidnapped, or otherwise abused dozens of journalists, and rival factions “press-ganged” news outlets into distributing favorable propaganda. Following a ceasefire, elections are finally planned for December, but the situation remains tense. Some observers have speculated that the Qaddafi dynasty might reassert itself via one of his sons, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, who once cast himself as a modernizer but is now wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. In the summer, the younger Qaddafi granted an extraordinary interview to Robert F. Worth, of the New York Times Magazine, in which he hinted at a comeback and endorsed his father’s hardline approach. When Jehad Nga, the photographer for the piece, tried to make Saif Qaddafi’s portrait, Qaddafi insisted on obscuring part of his face. When Worth asked why, Qaddafi replied that he wants to return to his people slowly, “like a striptease.”

Yesterday, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the top general and, now, de facto leader in Sudan, which borders Libya, pledged that his country would also press ahead with elections, in 2023. Not that many people seem to believe him. This morning, the internet remained out, and protesters returned to the streets, despite the specter of a violent crackdown. Some of them chanted that “returning to the past is not an option.” But that increasingly looks like a reality for the press—not just in Sudan, but in countries across North Africa and beyond. In some places, the future is looking even worse.

Below, more on press freedom:

  • Egypt: Yesterday, Sisi’s regime brought an end to a four-year-long state of emergency, saying it was no longer necessary. The proclamation “theoretically ends a decree that had been renewed every three months since 2017,” Yee writes, for the Times. “But critics called it a superficial change that would not fundamentally alter the repressive system that has prevailed in Egypt for most of the past 40 years.” Among other things, the state of emergency gave Sisi cover to “monitor media outlets and censor their content before publication… with little or no judicial oversight,” Yee writes.
  • Myanmar: Last week, the ruling junta in Myanmar—which itself executed a military coup, back in February—released at least fifteen jailed journalists as part of a broader amnesty, but as CPJ reports, more than twenty reporters remain in prison in the country; Shawn Cripsin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative, called the amnesty “a cynical attempt to alleviate rising international pressure against its repression,” adding that “partial measures simply aren’t good enough.” Danny Fenster, an American journalist who worked at Frontier Myanmar, is among those still incarcerated.
  • Saudi Arabia: Recently, Citizen Lab, a digital-rights organization at the University of Toronto that has also done extensive research on Pegasus, reported that the phone of Ben Hubbard, the Beirut bureau chief at the Times, was twice infected with the spyware during a period in which he was covering Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. “As far as I know, no harm has come to any of my sources because of information that may have been stolen from my phone,” Hubbard writes. “But the uncertainty was enough to make me lose sleep.”
  • The UK: In January, police in the UK arrested Andy Aitchison, a journalist, after he took and shared photos of a protest at a former military facility that is now used to house asylum seekers; officers also searched Aitchison’s home and confiscated electronic equipment. The case against him, which was brought on the grounds of criminal damage, was soon dropped, and the police department involved has now admitted that his treatment was unlawful. The Guardian’s Jamie Grierson has more.


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Two weeks from now, I’ll be writing this newsletter from inside COP26, the vital global climate summit in Scotland, reporting and commenting on the media stories surrounding both the conference and the climate crisis itself. If you or your news organization is headed to COP, I’d love to hear about your coverage plans (especially if you’re lining up something innovative) or just to say hi. If you aren’t heading to COP, I’d love to hear about what you’re looking for from others’ coverage of the conference, or any thoughts you may have on the state of climate journalism generally. You can reach me at [email protected]  


Other notable stories:

  • The Facebook Papers (or Files, if you’re a traditionalist) continue to flutter forth: yesterday, what was left of an embargo agreement between seventeen US news outlets with access to documents leaked by Frances Haugen, a whistleblower, was lifted, resulting in the publication of dozens more incriminating stories about Facebook’s practices; meanwhile, the informal consortium reportedly grew from seventeen to at least twenty-one outlets, with Gizmodo, The Guardian, CNBC, and the New York Post now on  board. Writing in his Platformer newsletter, which is the only independent outlet in the consortium, Casey Newton said he expects to continue receiving documents through the end of November—a strategy that amounts to “a drip marketing campaign” for proponents of regulation, and makes Newton, as a journalist, feel somewhat uncomfortable.
  • For CJR, Lucy Schiller explores the place of The Ramsey Show—which is the second most popular talk radio program in the country, and advises listeners about their debts—within the corporate media ecosystem. Even as Dave Ramsey, the show’s host, “railed against banks and credit cards” and claimed, as a colleague put it, that he was “never beholden to corporate America,” his show “hooked itself to the trajectory of corporate radio, an industry rife with debt on a far greater scale than any of his callers’,” Schiller writes. “Doing so has enabled Ramsey to establish a wide reach while limiting explicit ties to the excesses of American capitalism that he tells his fans to reject.”
  • For The New Yorker, Stephen Witt profiled Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire doctor who, despite a litany of controversies in his medical background, “has emerged as one of Los Angeles’s most prominent civic leaders,” and now owns the LA Times and San Diego Union-Tribune. “He made the acquisition with very little due diligence, because he thought that it had to be easier than curing cancer,” Norm Pearlstine, the former executive editor of the LA Times, said. “I’m not sure whether he still believes that.”
  • In media-jobs news, Jonathan M. Katz launched The Racket, an expanded version of his existing newsletter; my former CJR colleague Sam Thielman will edit it. Elsewhere, Sui-Lee Wee is the new Southeast Asia bureau chief at the Times. And Politico announced a pair of hires: Maxwell Tani, a media reporter at the Daily Beast, will join its West Wing Playbook team, and Jonathan Lemire, of the Associated Press, will be Politico’s White House bureau chief while also hosting Way Too Early, on MSNBC.
  • Maria Bustillos, CJR’s public editor for MSNBC, tallied clips posted to the network’s YouTube channel and concluded that it “is sadly incapable of focusing on more than a handful of concerns at a time,” and does a particularly poor job of covering the world outside of the US. “A steady diet of MSNBC,” Bustillos argues, “provides a worldview that is in its way just as claustrophobic and provincial as the one on offer at Fox.”
  • Yesterday, Fox launched Fox Weather, an around-the-clock streaming venture focused on what its name suggests. Ahead of the launch, the new service faced pointed questions as to how it plans to incorporate climate science, in light of Fox News’s checkered history in that regard. Sharri Berg, an executive overseeing Fox Weather, told Variety that “climate change is part of our lives. It’s how we live. It’s not going to be ignored.”
  • On Thursday, executives from big oil companies will testify at a Congressional hearing focused on the fossil-fuel industry’s complicity in climate disinformation. Ahead of time, Amy Westervelt, an independent climate journalist, is launching Rigged, an online archive, and accompanying podcast, showing that disinformation is far from a new problem and was largely created “to help American industry circumvent democracy.”
  • Researchers at the Bank of England analyzed thousands of newspaper articles and concluded that bank officials should “keep things simple” in their communications with the media. “The journalist faces a trade-off,” the researchers say. “Writing news that satisfies consumer desires will sell more papers, but requires effort. Paraphrasing the central bank may not align with consumer desires, but is costless.” Reuters has more.
  • And CNN entered late into the contest for best correction of 2021 after messing up the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Goldilocks found Baby Bear’s bed to be “just right,” not vice versa. H/t: Raju Narisetti.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Thousands of pro-democracy protesters take to the streets to condemn a takeover by military officials in Khartoum, Sudan, Monday Oct. 25, 2021. Sudan’s military seized power Monday, dissolving the transitional government hours after troops arrested the acting prime minister and other officials. The takeover comes more than two years after protesters forced the ouster of longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir and just weeks before the military was expected to hand the leadership of the council that runs the African country over to civilians. (AP Photo/Ashraf Idris)