KHARTOUM, SUDAN -- The economy is a mess, civil war rumbles on, starving refugees are walking in from Ethiopia and the government seems paralyzed by indecision.

Bad as they are, Sudan's miseries have a silver lining. They are public miseries.

The Sudanese can argue about them, scream about them in the streets and write about them in the newspapers. They can publicly say -- as they often do -- that their prime minister talks too much and does nothing.

Unlike the citizens of nearly every other country in East Africa, the Sudanese can speak their minds without fear of being tortured, jailed or shot. Two examples:"The government's explanations are tantamount to a cover-up and are directed at deflecting attention from {its} role . . . in causing the massacre."

So wrote two Khartoum University researchers in a paper about the government's alleged role in encouraging a tribal massacre last spring. The accusation was widely reported in the local newspapers. The authors made soapbox speeches all over town, condemning what they called the brutality of Prime Minister Sadiq Mahdi.

Months later, the authors are still alive, not in jail, teaching on the public payroll and complaining bitterly about the government."In spite of his eloquence, Sadiq Mahdi does not speak rationally. He is living in a dream world . . . There will be a coup. It is almost definite. When is the question."

Bona Malwal, editor of the English-language Sudan Times, wrote those words. Nearly every day, the Times and most of the 15 other daily newspapers in Khartoum find something abominable in the government's behavior. Yet nearly every day (except when there is a shortage of newsprint or a power outage) the newspapers come out.

It has been more than 2 1/2 years since the dictatorship of Jaafar Nimeri was toppled. In that time, freedom of expression has taken root in Africa's largest country. Strikes, student demonstrations, rhetorical potshots by opposition politicians and fearless man-in-the-street carping all have become part of a system that the daily newspapers are eager to defend.

"The Sudanese nation did not wage war to rid itself of a staunch dictatorship to fall into the hands of a new suppressive system," thundered Al Ayyam, the leading Arabic-language daily, when it heard last month that the government might have threatened the organizers of a strike that has crippled Sudan Airways, the government-owned carrier.

To understand just how revolutionary this speech is -- in an East African context -- consider freedom of expression as practiced in Marxist Ethiopia or procapitalist Kenya.

In Ethiopia, under the rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the press is owned and controlled by the government. Strikes and public demonstrations are unthinkable. Only in the privacy of an Ethiopian's home, and then only in a whisper, does a visitor hear the throw-the-bums-out grumbling that cab drivers dispense indiscriminately in Khartoum.

Typically, an editorial in the Ethiopian Herald will carry a headline such as "Farsighted Statesmanship." Without mention of crippling civil war in the north or famine-inducing farm policies, one of these editorials noted:

"It is under the farsighted statesmanship and outstanding leadership qualities of Comrade Mengistu that Ethiopia has achieved one impressive victory after another. . . . It is also under the wise leadership of Comrade Mengistu Haile Mariam that the country has pursued ever broader and {more} meaningful cooperation with the community of nations, thereby rising to a position of worldwide recognition for her principled policy."

In nearby Kenya, which is a far more open society, the press and the man in the street are free to say nearly anything -- so long as it does not criticize the person, financial holdings or policies of President Daniel arap Moi. Similar unwritten but inviolate restrictions apply in Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda and Somalia.

As in those other East African countries, politicians, church leaders and editorial writers in Kenya have developed a vocabulary of applause for use in all references to the head of state and his pronouncements.

These words, as seen in the Kenyan press in the past month, include: "wise," "dynamic," "crystal-clear," "statesmanlike" and "custodian of the republic's precious constitution."

Penalties for using less than laudatory language can be high. According to the Kenyan government, one of the offenses that led last spring to the arrest without trial of prominent Kenyan lawyer Gibson Kamau Kuria was "uttering words and conducting himself in total disrespect of the head of state."

Kuria remains in prison, where he is not allowed regular contact with his family or his lawyer.

In Khartoum, by contrast, a common editorial adjective used in connection with the current head of state is "misguided." It cannot be said that Sadiq Mahdi is happy with such freedom of the press.

"It is an undeveloped press and many people who have engaged in it are new to the exercise and believe to sell your paper you have to shout obscenities very loud," said Mahdi in an interview. "I am looking at the whole thing in relatively tolerant terms. But we have plans to see to it that the extremes are, so to speak, controlled."

The prime minister has proposed various press controls, but opposition politicians and diplomatic observers say the proposals are widely opposed and unlikely to become law.