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Inside Sudan's new independent journalists’ union

October 12, 2022
topics: Freedom of Expression
by: Marc Español
located in: Sudan
tags: democracy, freedom of expression, military coup, press freedom, Sudan

Abdelmonim Abu Idris won the election to lead the new syndicate, as the African country is caught in a struggle between a democratic revolution and a military coup.

In April 2019, former Sudanese dictator Omar El Bashir, who had ruled the country for three decades at the head of a ruthless regime, was overthrown in a military coup staged in the wake of massive, nationwide demonstrations erupted four months earlier.

Under El Bashir's rule, the crackdown on journalists was among the harshest in the world.

Shortly after El Bashir’s fall, Sudan embarked on a fragile democratic transition that allowed for a certain increase in rights and freedoms, including for the media. Yet this hard-won progress on press freedom came under serious threats again when the Sudanese Armed Forces, allied with a feared and powerful paramilitary group and remnants of the old regime, seized power in a new coup that derailed the transition in October 2021.

One of the domains that was immediately affected was press freedom, which has been eroded since then to new worrying limits. However, the coup also reinvigorated the revolution that erupted in 2019, which has regained a lot of strength and which, even today, a year after the military takeover, continues to sustain broad popular mobilisations that have prevented the coup generals from consolidating their authority.

In this context of open struggle between the coup and the revolution, elections were held last August to form Sudan’s first independent journalists’ union in over three decades, with the aim of consolidating and improving the progress made in the sphere of press freedom and preventing the country from turning into a 'media black-hole.'

FairPlanet spoke to the group’s new head, Abdelmonim Abu Idris, to find out how this process is unfolding.

FairPlanet: Tell us a bit about Sudan's first independent journalists’ union, which was dissolved in 1989 when the now deposed dictator Omar El Bashir took power in a military coup.

Abdelmonim Abu Idris: The first Sudanese Journalists’ Union was established back in 1946 [still under British occupation], and its mission was focused on defending freedom of expression in the country and the rights of journalists to decent wages. That was its main relevance to the national cause.

How did the situation for Sudanese journalists deteriorate during El Bashir’s 30-year iron-fist rule?

During El-Bashir’s rule, the Journalists Syndicate was dissolved, newspapers were banned from publishing, and male and female journalists lost jobs in government media institutions.

For several years, his security apparatus practiced a pre-publication type of censorship, confiscating newspapers after they were printed, summoning male and female journalists to its headquarters, making arrests and imposing bans on work.

Unsteady progress

How did all this change with the political and social opening that the country experienced following the outbreak of the December 2019 revolution?

Following the overthrow of El Bashir, security apparatuses stopped interfering in these matters, and the space for freedom of expression increased.

This led Reporters Without Borders to rank Sudan 151st in its world index instead of 174th [out of 180], which is the position Sudan had remained in for decades.

How has the situation changed again since last October’s military coup?

Following the coup, 57 male and female journalists were beaten while covering the [opposition] protests and several others were arrested.

Internet service was shut down for several days, radio stations were banned from broadcasting for months and concerns about the safety of journalists increased.

The authorities have also again delayed issuing travel permits for journalists working for international media and some have had to wait several days, whereas under the civilian government they were issued immediately.

How has the absence of an independent journalists’ union affected the media in Sudan so far?

The absence of a union affected the media because there has been nobody dedicated to defending their rights, such as those related to a decent wage, and freedom of expression, which resulted in many being expelled or simply leaving the profession.

The absence of a union also created a gap in the training, safety and protection of journalists as they carry out their work. Some journalists are even punished with or face prison sentences.

A significant, unrecognised union 

In this regard, how important were the last elections to form the union in the wider struggle to restore freedoms in Sudan threatened since the military coup?

They were very important in this respect, especially considering that they were also the first such elections to take place since the overthrow of El Bashir.

Yet when the elections for the new independent journalists’ union were to be held, some journalists allied to El Bashir tried to stop the process. What happened?

Indeed, some journalists submitted a request to the authorities to try to prevent the elections from happening, but they were not successful.

So far, the incumbent government has not recognised the union either, and this creates a situation of concern over the possibility that the authorities may take action against members of the organisation.

What are the main measures you want to take as the new head of the union?

The priorities are to defend press freedom and to develop the skills of journalists through training and development plans.

In addition, we also want to contribute to reforming media laws, provide legal assistance to journalists who need it and establish a unit to monitor violations of freedom of expression occurring in the country.

What will be the difference between the union you now head and other well-known journalists’ groups in Sudan, such as the Sudanese Journalists Network?

The Sudanese Journalists Network is more of a pressure group, but its members are also members of the union, so our cooperation remains open.

Is the gender perspective also one of the key points of your mandate?

[Indeed], equality is one of our main concerns, and that must be reflected in issues such as equal pay and respecting the rights of women journalists to take up all kinds of positions in media organisations according to their qualifications and skills.

Image by Hans Birger Nilsen.

Article written by:
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Marc Español
Author
Sudan
Abdelmonim Abu Idris.
Abdel Moneim Abu Idris celebrates his election as the head of the Journalists' syndicate.
The hard-won progress on press freedoms threatened again when the Sudanese Armed Forces seized power in a new coup that derailed the country's democratic transition in October 2021.
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