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Government announces lifting of prior censorship but journalists and media still seriously threatened

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders notes the announcement by the director-general of National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) on 7 August 2010 that prior censorship of Sudan's newspapers has been lifted. The government's media department notified the national media of the decision, which most newspapers reported in their 8 August issues.

In a news conference on 7 August, the head of the NISS press office said prior censorship had been needed to combat the publication of false reports. Quoting the NISS director-general, he said: "Some articles had aimed to destroy Sudan's relations with its neighbours. Attempts to stir up division and inter-ethnic hatred had given the authorities no choice but to censor all newspapers, including the responsible ones."

Announcing the lifting of prior censorship, the NISS spokesman thanked all the Sudanese print media on behalf of the director-general for their positive attitude towards the instructions they have received from the censors and for their cooperation with security personnel.

But he warned journalists to behave responsibly and to censor themselves on issues that could threaten national unity. And he added that the Sudanese authorities had a constitutional right to introduce partial or total censorship again whenever national stability and unity were threatened by newspaper articles.

Reporters Without Borders wonders which article of the constitution gives the security services the right they claim to impose censorship. This announcement was designed to make international observers think that press freedom is being restored in Sudan, but in fact it is a slap in the face.

Prior censorship may have been lifted, but the announcement has been accompanied by so many warnings that it is clear that nothing is going to change. The situation will remain the same and journalists will not be able to express themselves freely on key issues such as Southern Sudan's autonomy.

Reporters Without Borders wrote recently to Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir calling for an end to censorship.

In another example of how Sudanese journalists are kept under surveillance, the security services distributed a questionnaire to them in July with more than 20 detailed questions about such matters as their political affiliation, their home, the plans of their house, the names and professions of their close relatives and their car registration number.

Journalists who have been slow to cooperate have been summoned by security officials and questioned until they provided the required information.

The questionnaire is a serious violation of journalists' civil liberties and is very intimidatory. When outspoken journalists are sought by the security services, they are now served up on a silver platter. They can be tracked down geographically, socially and politically. The security authorities know their car registration and the plan of their home. Reporters Without Borders is deeply shocked by this measure and worried for the safety of Sudan's journalists.

This disturbing trend is confirmed by other recent developments. The government told the BBC on 9 August that an agreement allowing it to broadcast its Arabic-language service on local FM frequencies was being suspended until further notice. The BBC's broadcasts were stopped the same day in four cities in northern Sudan (Khartoum, Port Sudan, Wad Madani and Al-Ubayad).

The authorities insisted that the suspension was the result of the BBC's failure to comply with the terms of the agreement governing its local operations and had nothing to do with programme content.

In a statement posted on its website, the BBC said it hoped ongoing talks with the Sudanese authorities would allow local FM broadcasting to resume. The suspension has deprived the residents of northern Sudan of one of the country's most important news outlets. Link to the statement: .

Sudan is ranked 148th out of 175 countries in the 2009 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

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