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'Bells of freedom' hushed in Sudan press crackdown

By Simon Martelli

KHARTOUM (AFP) - Fears of tighter press freedom in the wake of South Sudan's secession are proving justified with several Sudanese newspapers closed this month and numerous journalists on trial.

On July 8, a day before the south declared formal independence from the north, the authorities in Khartoum cancelled the licences of six newspapers, including popular Arabic daily Ajras Al-Hurriya (Bells of Freedom).

Officially, the papers were shut down because of their part ownership by southerners, who are no longer Sudanese nationals as required by Sudan's press law, according to Al-Obeid Meruh, secretary general of the Press Council.

Meruh says he instructed the papers to close, with the order coming down from the presidency through the information ministry.

"This was not because of a decision to restrict press freedom. The 2009 press act does not allow foreigners to be a part of the ownership of newspapers," he told AFP.

"On July 9, every southern became the citizen of another state ... If they had transferred ownership to the northern shareholders before July 9, they would not have been suspended," he said.

"Unfortunately it is now too late, because the order when we received it was to cancel permission to publish," he said.

Other newspapers barred from publication in the north were the Khartoum Monitor, the Juba Post, the Sudan Tribune, the Advocate and the Democrat, all English-language dailies which, like Ajras Al-Hurriya, had links to the south.

But journalists interviewed by AFP point out that the nationality law, which effectively stripped southerners living in the north of their citizenship, was only passed after the secession and the publishers had received no warning.

They point to a downward trend in Sudan, which was already ranked 172nd out of 178 countries in the 2010 press freedom index, and where foreign journalists have also come under pressure.

Ajras Al-Hurriya's managing director Hussein Saad insists his paper was shut down for political reasons.

"It is because the paper is close to the SPLM and the opposition," he said, referring to the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the ruling party of the south.

"It was common for the security forces to take Ajras Al-Hurriya and prevent it being distributed after it was printed. It has happened nine times this year," he added.

Faisal Mohammed Saleh, one of more than a dozen journalists and editors on trial for reporting on the alleged rape of a female opposition activist by security forces, says it was "very clear" that press freedom was deteriorating.

"They are using different tools. One of the tools of harassment is the courts, especially given the state of the judiciary, which everyone knows is not independent," he told AFP.

Opposition activist Safiya Ishaq charged in videos posted online that she was raped repeatedly by three security officers after her arrest in Khartoum in February.

Two journalists were jailed earlier this month -- and subsequently released -- for writing about the case, after they were found guilty of publishing lies and violating Sudan's ethics code.

Media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders has accused the Sudanese authorities of prosecuting journalists in a bid to quell revelations of human rights violations by the security forces.

In another case, seven journalists working for Radio Dabanga, a Netherlands-based station which broadcasts in Darfuri dialects, are currently on trial, accused of spying and attacking the constitution.

Their next court appearance is scheduled for August 3.

Shortly after the independence of the south, President Omar al-Bashir pledged to engage in dialogue with all of Sudan's political groups, in a speech to parliament.

The planned reform of Sudan's 2009 press law, which is currently being drafted, will prove a test of the regime's commitment to political pluralism.

Al-Akbar newspaper's Faisal Mohammed Saleh is not optimistic, but says he will continue to fight for press freedom. "When the parliament reconvenes, we're going to demand to see the draft law," he said.

© 2011 AFP

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