In Radio Dabanga raid, Sudan targets last uncensored media outlet on the ground
At a market stall in southern Sudan, Darfuri trader Omer Saleh, 45, turned up the volume on his small battery-operated radio. Radio Dabanga, he said - the Dutch-based service that transmits Darfur news by local journalists through shortwave frequencies into Sudan - "is the only way I can know what is happening at home."
Half a world away in New York, Ahmat Nour, president of the Darfur People's Association of New York, said he listens to the Radio Dabanga broadcasts every day: "I download the two episodes and listen to them through the Net as soon as I finish work."
With the government of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir routinely denying foreign journalists access to the conflict-ridden Darfur region, and with Sudan-based media subject to government censorship, Radio Dabanga is the only media outlet routinely providing uncensored information.
But on Oct. 30, Sudan's National Intelligence and Security Services raided a Khartoum office shared by Radio Dabanga and Darfuri human rights activists, arresting 13 people. According to Radio Dabanga's Dutch-based director, Hildebrand Bijleveld, the detainees are being held incommunicado in unknown locations.
The first official acknowledgment of the arrests came last weekend, with an intelligence official telling the state-run Sudanese media that "Radio Dabanga was working against Sudan, focused on inciting hatred among the people and aborting the peace process." Amnesty International has issued an alert, warning that the detainees are at risk of torture.
"I think they have done this to intimidate those bringing out the story of what is really happening on the ground in Darfur," Bijleveld said.
A new international focus
Darfur, in the west of Sudan, attracted widespread attention with reports of atrocities committed against the region's non-Arab population by the Sudanese government and its proxy militia, the Janjaweed. In 2004, the George W. Bush administration declared the atrocities genocide. An unprecedented constituency of advocates has ensured that U.S. government attention has stayed on Darfur, and the U.N. Security Council has issued multiple resolutions, including authorizing peacekeepers and referring the situation to the International Criminal Court.
These days, however, international attention is largely focused on southern Sudan ahead of two self-determination referendums (one for southern Sudanese and the other for residents of Abyei, an area straddling the nation's north and south) scheduled for Jan. 9. The referendums mark the final stage of a 2005 peace agreement that ended 22 years of war between the Sudanese government in the mainly Muslim north and rebels based in the mainly Christian and animist south.
U.S. diplomats are working to ensure that the voting proceeds peacefully and that the Sudanese government, faced with the prospect of losing its oil-rich southern territory, accepts what is widely expected to be a southern vote for independence. "Realistically, there is a finite amount of leverage the U.S. government has available in Sudan," said Jon Temin, Sudan program officer at the U.S. Institute for Peace, explaining that with the referendums, there is less leverage for other issues such as Darfur.
For the Darfuri diaspora, the shift in international attention away from their homeland is frustrating. "Darfur is still hurting," Nour said.
Bombs fall; aid restricted
Radio Dabanga's broadcasts from Darfur in recent months painted a disturbing picture, with reports of civilians fleeing the government's aerial bombardments in the Jebel Marra area; the massacre of dozens of civilians at a market in Tabra; government restriction of aid agencies' access to Kalma, one of the largest displacement camps; government obstruction of UNICEF's reporting on child malnutrition rates; continuing sexual violence; and fatal clashes among Arab fighters. Radio Dabanga is usually alone in issuing such reports.
The lack of information from Darfur is not only due to government restrictions on media, but also a result of a reduction in reporting by the external actors left in the region. In March 2009, Bashir expelled key aid organizations from Darfur after he was indicted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, accusing aid workers of providing information to the International Criminal Court. Aid groups and the court have denied that assertion.
The expulsions have had a chilling effect on the remaining aid workers. "There is a high degree of self-censorship," said one worker, who was relocated from Darfur this year but who asked for anonymity to protect her remaining colleagues. "People fear that if they talk about what they are seeing on the ground, they will get expelled as well."
Jehanne Henry, Sudan researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs stopped issuing public reports on Darfur in November 2009. UNAMID, the peacekeeping operation in Darfur, releases a monthly report of fatalities, but, Henry said, "the UNAMID mission does not - and cannot - provide us with a full picture of the situation in Darfur." She says this is partly because the Sudanese government denies UNAMID access to significant areas of the region, and partly because the mission is no longer publicly reporting about the human rights and humanitarian situation.
Said Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights: "With no eyes and ears and in many cases no hands on the ground, the silence is eerie."
Hamilton is a special correspondent who reported from Sudan on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.