By Ty Joplin
“I feel anger and inner sadness… I feel my life has changed,” said a journalist who prefers not to be named, after being brutally beaten by Sudan’s secret police force.
He is not alone. At least 15 journalists were detained while covering the recent protests against rising bread prices in Sudan, along with dozens of demonstrators. The Sudanese government is using torture and violence as methods of coercing opposition and media coverage into silence, and as more protests are underway today in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, even more violence is expected.
But many of these stories will not be heard by the world.
Major media outlets, who once treated the government-led human rights violations in Sudan and the genocide in Darfur as a cause celebre, have either stopped covering the events entirely, or release only brief and underreported stories on the subject.
It’s not just repression against dissidents; Sudan is still committing genocide in Darfur with less resistance than ever before. Such acts have become normalized, treated as immutable facts of life in Sudan.
The lack of international pressure and coverage is failing the Sudanese people, who continue to be brutalized by an authoritarian regime, and who are at risk of being forgotten completely by those who used to champion their humanity and plight on the world stage.
Sudan’s Tumbling Economy
Throughout January, thousands of Sudanese took to the streets of Khartoum and other cities, demonstrating against the government’s raising of bread prices.
Immediately, the government cracked down violently, arresting protesters en masse, firing into crowds and killing indiscriminately, arresting journalists covering the events, and confiscating opposition newspapers.
The government’s removal of subsidies for bread follows recommendations by the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—an international organization critiqued for its policy recommendations to developing countries that often favor austerity and privatization to goods, which is then framed as “tighter monetary policy.”
After Sudan’s government implemented the IMF’s policy advice in January, bread prices reportedly doubled, causing outrage throughout the country and sparking protests centered in Khartoum.
Beyond that, little information has leaked out from the jails in Sudan housing activists and journalists, and even less from Sudanese papers to the rest of the world.
Silently Torturing Journalists
Opposition groups in Sudan organized protests today, called the “Great Salvation Rally,” but some key figures will be absent from the demonstrations, still in detention from the demonstrations that happened on Jan. 16.
Famed Sudanese journalist Amal Habbani, was detained on Jan. 16 while covering the protests.
According to Adil Colour, a freelance journalist in Sudan and friend of Habbani’s family, Habbani has been subject to torture. When family were allowed to visit her for 15 minutes, they saw she had visible injuries from beatings she sustained while in custody.
In addition to being beaten, Habbani has suffered from electric shocks according to sources close to her.
Habbani has consistently spoken out against the abuses of the Sudanese regime, and has been arrested several times. “Freedom of expression and journalism in Sudan collapsed to square one in the early 90s—the security service is slaughtering freedom of expression into non-existence,” said Habbani in an interview with the Doha Center for Media Freedom in 2013.
Habbani’s husband and fellow journalist, Shawgi Abdel Azim, was also detained.
“They sat me back on the floor and asked me for personal information, and asked me to draw a map showing them the place of my house and they asked why I was in the place of the protests. And thereafter, they charged me with inciting citizens to protest against the high prices,” Abdel Azim said in an interview.
Abel Azim confirms he was held for six days in Sudan’s notorious Cooper prison, which is known to hold political opponents of the regime.
Though Abdel Azim has been released, Habbani is still in custody.
Kamal Karrar, a journalist for the Sudanese Communist Party’s Al Midan newspaper, was also detained. According to sources close to him, Karrar has suffered from back injuries while in custody.
Karrar, like Habbani, is still being held by the the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS)—Sudan’s secret intelligence service that routinely tortures journalists and activists.
Ahmad’s Arrest and Beating
One journalist who will be referred to as Ahmad to protect his identity, was detained and released on the same day, but suffered horrific treatment from the NISS during his detention.
Ahmad was arrested with several other journalists while filming the demonstrations on the streets, and had his equipment confiscated.
While in custody, Ahmad told his captors, the NISS, that he is a journalist and he was just doing his job. He asked for his phone back, and was told to “keep silent and sit down against the wall.”
Ahmad says he felt “insulted”—that he was “treated like [a] criminal.” So he let his opinion be heard, telling the NISS that they were treating journalists poorly.
“One of them [got] angry” Ahmad says, and found a black hose, which he then used to beat Ahmad with angrily.
“The funny thing [is] is that most of my friend[s] knew that I would be beaten.” In Sudan, beating journalists and activists has become so common that it is now expected, especially by those who have been invovled in media and opposition politics. Ahmad’s friends have come to expect being physically assaulted by NISS forces.
“It seems normal. But I was shocked.”
“I feel anger and inner sadness… I feel my life has changed,” Ahmad concludes.
After his beating and eventual release, Ahmad says that he just isn’t in the mood to follow the news or cover events unfolding in the country, but Ahmad did meet with another journalist and confirms he too was electrocuted just as Habbani was.
The NISS, in using electrocution and electrified sticks, relies on a method of torture that subjects victims to convulsions and burns. If the voltage is high enough and the shocks applied long enough, the victim will begin to burn from the inside out.
Stories like Ahmad’s is becoming increasingly common in Sudan, but international news outlets are covering them less and less.
The horror of torture has become normalized to both the politics of Sudan and the subsequent coverage of it. Reports of mass arrests and torture, when they do leak out of the country despite a tight grip on press freedom, barely manage more than a few paragraphs of nominal descriptions, missing key details.
Stories that cover detainment and torture are underreported to be just “detainment.” Other stories covering protesters killed by police forces will mention investigations the government promises to undertake, but rarely mention that government forces fired live ammunition into crowds.
This framing paints subsequent deaths more as accidents that couldn’t have been avoided rather than deliberate targetting of civilians. The information presented is not only incomplete; it erases the tactics the government employs to silence, maim and even kill opposition.
A Genocide Uninterrupted
Sudan’s current regime is one of the most repressive and violent in the world.
Sudan’s sectarian, Islamist government is led by President Omar al-Bashir, who became the world’s first sitting president to be wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity in 2009.
Al-Bashir helped to forge a partnership with Janjaweed, an Arab militia, and began a brutal campaign of genocide against civilians in Darfur—a region in western Sudan. His campaign began in 2003 and has killed over 400,000 people, though exact numbers are difficult to verify.
From 2006 to 2007, press coverage of the genocide in Darfur spiked. Don Cheadle, George Clooney, Mia Farrow and Angelina Jolie all spearheaded campaigns to end the genocide and it became trendy to join chants for peace. For awhile, it seemed like the world would not stop pressuring Sudan until the government ended its genocide and began respecting human rights.
It didn’t work
Press coverage of the genocide all but stopped as did the chants, the mass protests around the world, and the celebrity condemnations.
Al-Bashir’s government, in addition to torturing dissidents, is still committing the genocide. In fact, it is facing less pressure than ever to stop relying on violence and finally begin respecting human rights.
The West and Sudan: From Antagonism to Partnership
In Oct., 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump ended two decades of embargo on Sudan and lifted sanctions from the country. The move was reportedely in an effort to foster more international partnerships with countries to build a bloc opposed to states like North Korea.
The U.S. and other countries around the world are now beginning to see the Sudanese regime as a reliable partner in countering violent extremism, completing the final step in the process of normalizing Sudan’s genocide and systemic deprivation.
It is no longer an issue for Western governments that they are partnered with a regime currently engaged in killing hundreds of thousands of its own people.
Sudan “has sought support through an international charm campaign,” says Gillian Lusk, a journalist specializing on Sudan. “The ‘carrots’ it offers the West are ‘cooperation’ on counter-terrorism, supposedly supplying ‘intelligence’ on international Islamists (intel which it could not have unless it was involved) and, for Europe, more ‘cooperation’ on migration.”
It seems to be working. Sudan’s government is less isolated than it was when it began the genocide, and looks to continue growing its relationship with Western governments. This is all “despite the fact that Sudanese security officers are involved in people-trafficking and most people fleeing from or via Sudan are likely to be genuine refugees, fleeing persecution in Sudan or Eritrea, or war and jihadists in Somalia,” according to Lusk.
In other words, Al-Bashir’s regime is part and parcel of the same type of violence that it is claiming to end.
Why Sudan has been Forgotten
So why isn’t this getting the type of coverage it got a decade ago? Where are the international outcries that were voiced so strongly when the same type of violence continues today?
There are many reasons that contribute to this communal ‘forgetting’ of Sudan and its brutal government. Although some have to do with the government’s control of the press, most other reasons ultimately boil down to one issue: covering Sudan has simply become inconvenient.
The government regularly confiscates opposition papers, preventing their distribution, and actively tries to create an environment hostile to journalism. In this sense, the government has enjoyed great success: very few international media outlets send reporters into Sudan, meaning most coverage of it comes from outside the country.
And when journalists are covering developments in the country, there is often a language barrier preventing them from talking with people on the ground. Stories that could have included first-hand accounts of events become little more than a few paragraphs detailing broad developments and public events.
The ongoing genocide and repression if mentioned, receive only a cursory glance.
However, none of this stopped the incessant coverage of the Darfur genocide in 2006 and 2007. It was difficult to find an outlet not seeking new angles on the issue or finding new stories to tell which describe, in graphic detail, the terror of genocide. So these are not the obstacles driving the lack of coverage.
What lies beyond these difficulties in covering Darfur lies a more troubling reason that it isn’t getting the attention it once commanded.
Sudan’s violence against activists and journalists, and genocide in Darfur, has become so normalized that it’s no longer newsworthy.
It has become ‘politics as usual.’
Sudan’s ‘Great Salvation’
“I think the real answer is that the lives of Sudanese simply aren’t as newsworthy as others in the world. This is especially true of Darfuris, and most especially non-Arab/African Darfuris, once a human rights cause celebre, [is] now completely invisible,” says Eric Reeves, professor at Smith College and expert on Sudan.
“They happen to be: poor, black, Muslim, geographically remote, they sit over no valuable natural resources, and are geostrategically inconsequential. Their lives and suffering simply don’t matter to major international actors, including the Arab League, the African Union, the U.N., the U.S., and the EU.”
Their plight, in other words, does not move the world, since the world can afford to ignore it if they so choose. And because violence in Sudan has come to be expected as its status quo, its humanitarian situation is considered more a given reality than a crisis.
The states that could put pressure on the Sudanese regime are now employing it as a partner in larger geopolitical plays, and media outlets that once staked their humanitarian credentials on providing rigorous and unflinching analysis on the violence and repression in Sudan have moved their operations to other, more explosive stories.
Outlets are focused on “terrorism, migration, what is happening in Syria and Iraq,” and other global events, says Adil Colour from Sudan. A slow burning conflict like the genocide and repression in Darfur attracts less attention than faster and more explosive stories like nuclear crises or massive battles that kill large numbers of people in a short period of time.
De Facto Impunity for Al-Bashir, the Ruler Behind the Genocide
By selling himself as an international partner and waiting for the heat to die down from the press, al-Bashir is emerging virtually unscathed.
As pressure eases and its coffers enjoy the lifting of sanctions, al-Bashir’s regime will be able to continue its brutal regime of repression and violence. Meanwhile, local activists and journalists are losing international allies and sway.
More violence is expected from the government today, and more people will inevitably be detained and tortured. Their voices threaten to be silenced completely, their repression seen as unnotable, if the normalization of the government’s state-sponsored terrorism continues.
This will not stop thousands of Sudanese dissidents from taking to the streets of Khartoum and demanding their rights, since they do not have the luxury of walking away from their own repression. In fact, their lives, endangered as they may be, depend on them voicing their grievances.
Whether they will be heard is up to the same group who first lent the Sudanese their ears and hands only to grow weary, lose conviction and eventually tune out.
As the ‘Great Salvation Rally’ blocks streets with crowds and police in Khartoum, the question rings louder than ever: who will hear Sudan to help deliver its Great Salvation?