Omar al-Bashir, fresh off press crackdown in Sudan, defies ICC in visit to Chad

Reproduced with permission from The Christian Science Monitor.

Buoyed by a win in the disputed Sudan election in April, President Omar Al Bashir continues to thumb his nose to critics at home and abroad, jailing journalists and challenging an arrest warrant for war crimes and genocide.

Mr. Bashir today flew to neighboring Chad on his first visit to a state member of the International Criminal Court since he was indicted in March 2009 for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The ICC ruled July 12 that Bashir is now also wanted on genocide charges. The ICC has requested that any member, including Chad, arrest Bashir upon arrival in the country.

His controversial visit comes a week after his government handed prison sentences to three Sudanese journalists for writing articles that suggested Bashir lacks popular support and that a Sudanese factory is making weapons for Iran and Hamas.

The prison terms, which range from two to five years, are the latest development in a crackdown on local media that began after Sudan's national elections.

The crackdown is a stark turnaround from Bashir's decision in September 2009 to lift the government's pre-publication censorship of newspapers. The decree was a small concession to Western pressure to create free and fair conditions for Sudan's first democratic election in 24 years.

But Bashir's victory in the April polls, after 12 most major opposition parties boycotted the vote, gave his ruling National Congress Party (NCP) almost total control over the institutions of the state, and the new government rapidly moved to shut down several newspapers.

On July 6, the government resumed pre-publication censorship across the board, limiting freedom of expression beyond what it was before the pre-election period.

Bashir emboldened

The three recently jailed journalists all worked for Rai al-Shaab, a newspaper of the opposition People's Congress Party (PCP). Two weeks after Bashir's election, the government's ubiquitous internal security agents arrived at the newspaper's office in Khartoum, arrested four journalists, and shut down the paper. The next day they arrested PCP leader Hassan al Turabi, who was imprisoned for 45 days before being released without charge.

Mr. Turabi says he was surprised by the government's actions. "I thought they would want to appear democratic for a while – at least to put on a show for the West," he says.

A few days later, pre-publication censorship resumed on three other papers. As the squeeze on opposition voices tightened, it became clear that the ruling regime had no concern about keeping up appearances.

"Immediately since they came back to power, they believe they cannot be touched," says Salih Mahmoud Osman, a human rights lawyer and member of the Sudanese Communist Party. Mr. Osman believes that the international community's acceptance of the election results, despite the admission that they were flawed, has emboldened the regime.

Operating under adversity

Other newspapers have been given a choice to either remove sensitive content or cease publication.

The computer room of the Sudanese Communist Party's Al Midan newspaper is a veritable hive of activity for a paper out of circulation for more than a month. On June 6, security agents demanded the right to censor Al Midan's work before they sent it to the printing press. Al Midan's editor refused, citing the freedom of expression guarantees in Sudan's internationally sponsored Interim Constitution.

But with security agents stationed at the printing press, he could not get his paper published. Since then, Al Midan journalists have continued to come up with a paper three times a week. Each time, they send it to the printing press, and each time it gets sent back. But they are finding other ways to get their message out.

Using a dusty old printer, the Al Midan staff produce 15 black-and-white copies, which they staple together and distribute to civil society groups in the area. And they are also managing to publish on the web. While the government sometimes blocks their website, journalist Mohamed Al Fadih says that the government's web censorship is "not very sophisticated." There is a bigger constraint looming, however. With no actual paper to sell, there is no money for staff salaries.

The latest wave of censorship also targets newspapers that are not affiliated to a political party

"It's really very serious. We don't know when they will close us down," says Alfred Taban, editor of the Khartoum Monitor, which was also placed under pre-publication censorship this month.

With 50 staff to pay, Mr. Taban has not accepted the effective ban that would result if he refused the censors. So each night, at about 8 p.m., security agents come to the Khartoum Monitor office, demanding to see the next day's copy and removing whatever they don't like. Mostly the journalists scramble to replace the prohibited articles with less sensitive material or with photographs.

Some nights, the need for a small act of defiance wins out, and the journalists leave half a page empty, "to show our readers we are under censorship," Taban says.

All in the name of unity

Before the elections, journalists say that the government's main "red lines" were the publication of articles on the International Criminal Court's case against the Sudanese president, and on the conflict in Darfur. Now though, the government has a bigger concern – the unity of the Sudanese state.

In January next year, the people of southern Sudan will have a referendum on whether they want to become an independent nation. The right to self-determination was granted to southerners in a 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the NCP and the main southern political party, the SPLM. In theory, both parties were supposed to spend the six years until the referendum making unity an attractive option. In practice, neither have done so, and there is a widespread belief that next year's vote will see Sudan split in two.

Mariam Sadiq Al Mahdi, spokesperson for the opposition Umma Party, says the NCP cannot afford secession for two reasons. The first is the ensuing loss of resource-rich southern land. "The government budget is more than 60 percent dependent on oil, mainly from the south," she says.

Second would be the historical stigma on Bashir's government: "They took over a unified country and then it was divided under their rule." At the eleventh hour, the NCP is trying desperately shift course – less by actually making unity attractive to southerners, and more by repressing anyone who speaks of secession.

Ministry of Information advisor Rabie Abdul Atti says that it was journalists who forced the government to resume pre-publication censorship, by writing articles in favor of secession. With just six months until the referendum, what matters now is unity.

"Secessionist views," he says, "are against the Constitution ... the government will not allow anyone to act against the constitution, or make trouble for the Sudan."

According to Dr. Atti, articles about the ICC or Darfur are no longer a serious concern for the government. Apparently, it's also of no concern to ICC member state Chad. The mayor of the capital, N'djamena, presented Bashir with a key to the city upon his arrival today.

This article was also featured by the UN Dispatch.