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GOVERNMENT LEADS FREE EXPRESSION CRACKDOWN, SAYS HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH

The Sudanese authorities are censoring the media and cracking down on human rights activists and journalists who speak out on human rights and justice, Human Rights Watch says in a new report.

Harassment, repression and censorship has worsened in the last year, particularly since the International Criminal Court's (ICC) request for an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir in July 2008, says the report.

"'It's an Everyday Battle': Censorship and Harassment of Journalists and Human Rights Defenders in Sudan," documents the government's efforts to repress activists and journalists who seek to report on "sensitive" issues, including human rights, the conflict in Darfur, and the ICC investigation.

"It is unsafe to criticise the Khartoum government or to call for justice for the victims of horrific crimes in Darfur," said Human Rights Watch. "We are deeply concerned that President Bashir will use the issuance of an ICC warrant against him as an excuse for an even more brutal crackdown on free expression."

Over the past year, National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) agents have arrested and detained at least three high-profile activists who had spoken out in support of human rights and international justice, and at least three journalists who have written or published articles that criticise the majority National Congress Party (NCP).

Since February 2008, the few independent newspapers operating in Khartoum have been subject to "proof" censorship, a practice whereby NISS agents visit newspaper houses each day before they go to print and physically remove articles they deem problematic and taboo. Media houses not complying with the censors risk having their publications confiscated and destroyed, the report says.

Meanwhile, the Khartoum government controls most of the country's broadcast media, as well as the National Press Council, which is responsible for licensing and registering journalists and newspapers.

"The combination of government control, daily censorship of independent media, and abuse and harassment of journalists by the NISS is a severe barrier to freedom of expression and access to information in Sudan," says Human Rights Watch.

The harassment even goes beyond Sudan's borders. IFEX member Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), which backs up the findings of Human Rights Watch, is fighting an extensive smear campaign in the Egyptian and Arab mass media after it released "Darfur Destroyed", a documentary featuring testimonies and confessions of perpetrators of war crimes in Darfur. According to CIHRS, the Sudanese Embassy in Cairo released accusatory press statements that were reprinted in major papers across the Arab world.

Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned that national elections scheduled for mid-2009 - Sudan's first in more than 20 years - will not be free and fair because they require a free and open media. "Khartoum's repressive practices and abuse of those who criticise it put such elections at great risk," says Human Rights Watch.

To read "'It's an Everyday Battle'," visit: http://www.hrw.org/en/node/80841

Also see CIHRS: http://www.cihrs.org/English/NewsSystem/Articles/1268

(25 February 2009)

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