Next week, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir will be inaugurated for a new term in office after lukewarm elections that failed to attract public attention or secure a high turnout of voters who preferred to stay at home knowing that the result was a forgone conclusion. The ruling National Congress Party (NCP) is preparing itself to celebrate the occasion, which will supposedly extend Bashir’s 26-year rule by another five years. But the Sudanese people have no reason to celebrate, as their circumstances continue to worsen and deteriorate to the extent that “Katamat,” a word in colloquial Sudanese which means “choking,” has become the most common way to describe the current situation in the country.
The most telling example of the country’s festering situation came last Monday when the Sudanese security apparatus cracked down on 10 newspapers, banning the distribution of some and suspending four others “until further notice.” The decision, as was expected, caused great uproar, giving rise to a flurry of speculation as to what really caused what has been described among the Sudanese as a new massacre of the press. Many people do not want to believe that the decision was prompted by the government’s anger over reports of children being harassed on school buses, or remarks on violence against Sudanese women made by the UN Special Rapporteur, who called for the formation of a UN commission to investigate claims of alleged mass rapes in the aftermath of a military campaign in Darfur. The reason behind the public’s suspicion is that this is not the first time such issues have been broached in Sudan.
Newspapers there used to constantly report on crimes, including the harassment of children, among other problems that have long afflicted Sudanese society and gnawed away at its values as circumstances deteriorated and corruption spread. The other thing is that people no longer believe what the government says and always look for hidden reasons, convinced that there is always something the authorities are trying to conceal from them.
The rule of thumb here is that any attempts to block news always backfire, particularly in the age of “citizen journalism” and social media where government control is absent. The incident did not limit news coverage but instead intensified the debate in Sudan. It also shed light on the situation of the press in the country and how government domination has stopped the media from safeguarding social security and enlightening the public. The irony is that the government crackdown on the media has reached an extent where it is no longer capable of tolerating its own newspapers, let alone independent journalists or members of the opposition. This indicates its increasing frailty and growing isolation.
Some think that the government is trying to subjugate newspapers by punishing them financially, whether by banning them from being distributed or scaring away advertisers. This method may prove to be bruising to newspapers given the declining distribution figures and advertisement rates as reading habits shift. But it is also damaging to the government. Any article that leads to the confiscation of a newspaper receives wider public attention. And punishments against the media widen the gap between the government and journalists, rubbish the government’s claims of promoting freedom of speech, and bring more criticism from Western circles, among whom the government is keen to have better relations.
The decision, whether made on some security officials’ initiative or at the behest of some senior government officials, did not come at the best of times for the government. The news has dominated the Sudanese scene ahead of preparations for Bashir’s inauguration. The Sudanese government’s problem is that it has always relied on tightening its security grip as a means to run the country, a practice that in the process has widened the gap between Khartoum and the people. Hence it is unlikely that a true breakthrough will be achieved in the national dialogue with the opposition. The whole dialogue remains pointless as long as the government does not intend to use it as a means to expand its ranks but rather as a pre-emptive tactic to swallow the opposition. The government security apparatus must be aware of the high levels of public discontent. No security measures against newspapers will ever change or blot out how the Sudanese people view the situation in their country.