How the press emerges from the coup in Sudan

April 13, 2019
Sudanese protestors. Photo: Ashraf Shazly/AFP.

In the early hours of the morning on Thursday, Reem Abbas, a freelance journalist, was woken up by her mother, who told her that a coup was taking place. Awad Mohammed Ibn Auf, Sudan’s defense minister, had announced, on national airwaves, that the military had taken over. Omar Al Bashir, Sudan’s iron-fisted dictator for the past three decades, had been ousted. Abbas headed straight to the army headquarters, carrying her infant daughter. “When I got there, a shooting broke out and there was chaos,” Abbas says. “My daughter started crying and I felt guilty as a mother to bring her.” But she felt obliged to be there and document this historic moment. Abbas had been born the same month that Bashir staged the coup that brought him to power: June, 1989.

Since Thursday, Abbas’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing. She has appeared on BBC, CNN, France 24, and five other media outlets to provide context about the sudden turn of events. The Sudan Uprising, as it is being called, broke out in December 2018, when Sudanese civilians began to protest worsening economic conditions and steep inflation. They were unable to buy basic necessities, such as bread—the price of which had tripled.

Since then, Abbas has been reporting on events on the ground, but refused to appear on TV or radio interviews because she feared arrest while Bashir was still in power. “Every time an article of mine was published, I thought, ‘They will come after me,’” she says. In 2016, she was arrested for covering a human rights organization trial.

Abbas’s fears were well founded. According to Reporters Sans Frontières, 79 journalists were arrested between December and February. Indiscriminate shooting by security forces during these protests have brought the death toll to 70, according to Sudanese Professionals’ Association, the main anti-government protest organizer. In February, Osman Mirghani, editor in chief of Al-Tayar, an independent newspaper, was picked up by security services after criticizing Bashir in an interview on Sky News Arabia. He was released after being held in an undisclosed location for nearly a month. Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services has also been known to crack down on local press by seizing print runs of newspapers to inflict economic losses on their publishers. “Throughout my career as a journalist, I always felt intimidated and unsafe,” Abbas says. The local press is essentially a mouthpiece of the government, she explains, and journalists have not had the freedom to report on much.

The coup symbolizes change, though it’s unclear whether Bashir’s removal will improve anything. On Thursday, the military announced the country will be operating under emergency laws for the next three months, while the government is in transition. They have suspended the Constitution and declared a month-long curfew. Late Friday evening, news broke that Ibn Auf, defense minister, stepped down, and named Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan as his successor. “Emotionally it has been overwhelming, the past four months,” Abbas says. “I feel that I haven’t had a moment to process or analyze anything that is happening around me.”

Since December, Sudanese journalists working abroad have played a crucial role in platforming the voices of those back home. Ola Diab, a Sudanese journalist based in Doha, Qatar, runs 500 Words Magazine, an online magazine that covers topics ranging from politics, culture, health, and technology. Diab has been closely covering the political upheaval. “I couldn’t believe the news when I first heard it, until I finally saw people celebrating on the streets,” Diab says.  The protests in Sudan received very little attention from the international media until the sit-in began last week in front of the army headquarters in Khartoum, she says, and she had been relying on social media to keep up with the news.

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Isma’il Kushkush, a freelance journalist based in Virginia, spent nearly eight years reporting from Sudan for The New York Times, CNN, AP, and Reuters. One of the challenges facing bureaus is that certain newsrooms consider Sudan to be an Arab country and others as African, he says. “If you are covering Sudan from Cairo, you are probably at the bottom of the list of interest to many editors because you have news from Syria, Iraq, and Palestine that takes priority,” Kushkush says.

“For the time being nothing feels as scary and nothing feels as bad as submitting to dictatorship and oppression again.”

Nima ElBagir, CNN’s senior international correspondent, is stranded in Cairo waiting to get on a plane to Khartoum as Sudanese airspace has been closed off. ElBagir, a Sudanese-British journalist, has reported extensively from  Sudan, including on the atrocities of Darfur in 2002. She admits, with some embarrassment, that she did not expect Bashir’s government to be toppled. “Bashir was such a political survivor that I felt that he is going to be with us forever, which I know is insane because even dictators eventually die.”

ElBagir is inspired by the protests, yet she doesn’t think the military coup will change much. “When you speak to people on the ground, they are really tired of being told, ‘Look what happened in Egypt and Libya and the insecurity that followed,” she says. “For the time being nothing feels as scary and nothing feels as bad as submitting to dictatorship and oppression again.”

There’s some evidence that censorship is loosening. Yesterday, video journalists were allowed to cover the demonstrations for the first time. “Last few months, citizen journalists were using mobile phones to relay what is happening on the ground as it was extremely dangerous for journalists to go in with their cameras as they were the first to be attacked by security forces,” Kushkush says. On Twitter, Wasil Ali, the former editor of Sudan Tribune, wrote that Security Services sent a message to all the editors that “media censorship has been lifted” and posted images of the headlines of local papers that were “unthinkable 48 hours ago.”

Abbas is more skeptical. The news shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign that Sudan’s press will gain new levels of press freedom, she says. “This is only a small window where you are only allowed to criticize the former regime and it doesn’t mean that as journalists we will be free now.”

This morning, when Abbas read the headlines in Khartoum, she was amused. “In less than 24 hours, they went from ‘Hail the king’ to ‘Go to hell, king.’”

Zainab Sultan is a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @ZainabSultan.