KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Veteran Sudanese journalist Mahjoub Mohamed Saleh says he cannot remember a time when there were so many “red lines” - invisible boundaries that the media crosses at its peril.
“You don’t know what the red lines are,” said Saleh, who started his career in 1949 when Britain still ruled Sudan and is now editor of Sudan’s oldest newspaper, Al-Ayam. “Sometimes you are told ‘don’t publish this’ but they (the red lines) keep moving.”
Reporters in Sudan have long known that criticizing the president or writing about official corruption could bring a beating, or jail. Official censorship ensured journalists knew exactly where the lines were.
But censorship was abolished in 2009, and the secession of South Sudan a year ago and recent border fighting with the new nation has worsened the situation for press freedom. Interviews with Southern officials or rebels in the borderlands, which the government says are supported by Juba, are taboo.
New topics that reporters should not touch come up all the time, and punishment for crossing the line is increasingly financial - withdrawal of advertising or blocking the distribution of newspapers.
This week, the authorities confiscated an edition of “al-Ahram al-Youm” to stop it publishing an interview with Pagan Amum, South Sudan’s top official in peace talks with Sudan, its editor said.
“I can say without hesitation that this is the worst time I have faced as a journalist in 60 years,” said Saleh, sitting in his small office in a run-down building in central Khartoum.
Life has never been easy for journalists in Sudan, a tightly controlled Arab African country ruled by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir since a 1989 coup. Sudan ranks 170th of 179th in a global press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog.
But as tensions with South Sudan escalate and an economic crisis bites, pressure is mounting on journalists to be “patriotic”. The security services have suspended three newspapers this year after they criticized the government, editors say. Several reporters have been banned from writing.
“Sometimes you get a phone call not to tackle this or that,” said Alnoor Ahmed Alnoor, editor of the independent daily al-Sahafa, one of Sudan’s oldest dailies. “Often you don’t know what they object to because you don’t get it in writing.”
Bashir declared an amnesty for all imprisoned journalists in August. But several reporters have not been released or still face charges, Amnesty International said in a report last month. Reporters also say they face random summoning by security agents.
When journalist Faisal Mohamed Saleh criticized Bashir on Al Jazeera television for calling the rulers of South Sudan “insects”, he was detained and grilled for hours about his interview. With no legal case, they let him go but ordered him to come back every morning for eleven days.
“Every day I sat in a room there with nobody talking to me. I sat there until the evening and came back the next morning,” said the veteran columnist. “They wanted to punish me for my comments. They said my remarks were not appropriate.”
The government says press freedom is guaranteed in Sudan’s constitution and that reporters face no problems if they comply with the law.
“We have more than 30 newspapers in our country that publish daily, and I don’t think there is any monitoring or controlling of them,” said Rabie Abdelati, a spokesman for the information ministry. “There is nothing hindering publishing different opinions in newspapers.”
But editors say Sudan authorities now suppress coverage by blocking entire editions after they have been printed.
On June 4, agents arrived late at night at Al-Jarida newspaper, an independent daily which has upset the government for reporting the alleged rape of a female protester in custody by security agents last year.
“A security officer told us not to distribute the copies as they said they had to approve it first, but they gave us no reason,” said Al-Jarida managing editor Idris al-Douma.
The government gave the newspaper the green light to distribute at noon the next day, in effect scrapping a day’s edition of news and advertisements, a loss of $5,000, he said.
The government has stopped the distribution of three-times-per-week Communist newspaper Midan, which often attacks the government, for 20 days, its editor Madiha Abdallah said.
“We haven’t been given any reason,” she said, during a protest on June 5 with 35 colleagues in front of the building of the National Press Council. The council is formally in charge of licensing newspapers but has little power in practice.
Even the biggest daily Al-Intibaha, known as a pro-government newspaper and run by a relative of Bashir, has been affected; agents this month seized an entire edition after its chairman Eltayeb Mustafa blasted plans to lift fuel subsidies.
The security service could not be reached for comment. But experts say it has vast powers under a media code of conduct that requires journalists to defend Sudan’s “interest, unity, survival and integrity”.
“This stipulation has been used by ... agents to criminalize freedom of expression, including restricting reporting on armed conflicts in Sudan,” Amnesty International said in its report.
Critics say the authorities withhold advertising, either by government agencies or by the companies in which it has stakes.
“The government is punishing independent newspapers by not allocating them ads,” said the detained journalist Saleh, who works as a commentator and media trainer.
Such allegations are hard to prove but large papers dominating the market such as al-Intibaha or al-Rai al-Amn, which tend to support government thinking, get most of the government advertising.
On one day this week, for example, al-Rai al-Amn carried seven large advertisements from a government sugar firm and other official entities, while daily al-Safaha, known as a government critic, had three.
The media has already been battered by a fall in advertising revenue due to a national economic crisis and a scarcity of dollars after Sudan lost much of its oil production when South Sudan became independent a year ago.
Paper costs have doubled as Sudan has no local production. Printing paper needs to be imported from Dubai and India which has become very expensive because the value of the Sudanese pound has halved in the past 12 months.
Al-Sahafa, for example, has cut its weekday circulation to 25,000, down from 30,000 copies or more. Other dailies have stopped weekend editions or, in the case of at least three small papers, halted production for now.
The press council requires every newspaper to have at least 16 pages, a challenge in these hard times.
The information ministry says the council is helping the industry by allowing them temporarily to print only 12 pages and help them get paper.
Critics such as al-Ayam editor Saleh said the scrapping of the minimum-page requirement, long demanded by newspapers, came too late for some of the smaller dailies which had already had to halt production.
“They know that the financial situation of some newspapers is not stable so they add to it by increasing expenditures (by forcing them to print 16 pages),” Saleh said, adding the point was moot: “We don’t have ads anyway.”
Additional reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall