Reem Abbas is a freelance journalist and communications consultant based in Sudan.
On April 19, Sudanese viewers who tuned into the national TV channel saw something extraordinary: an extended interview with two famous dissidents. One was Mohamed Nagi al-Asam, a doctor who is a spokesman for the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), the coalition of independent trade unions that has played a crucial role in the protests in Khartoum that toppled then-President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Asam had spent about three months in detention when he was freed on April 6 thanks to the uprising. He was joined in the broadcast by Modathir Taysir, another political activist who has served multiple jail terms for his work.
It’s hard to describe just how remarkable this transformation has been. I’m still not used to freedom of expression, but I’m doing my best to catch up. A few days ago, when I wrote an article on the protests, all my sources allowed me to use their names and take their pictures. I’ve been a journalist for eight years, and this is the first time I’ve seen Sudanese willing to do this. The fear of retaliation has vanished — at least for the moment.
Journalists here are accustomed to working under the heavy hand of the state — especially the country’s notorious security agency, the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), whose duties included censorship as well as monitoring and jailing government critics. Since 2011, I’ve worked at two Sudanese newspapers, as well as doing some freelancing. Trying to do reporting in this environment was incredibly stressful; several times I had to take time off from work for a few months just to get my bearings.
You never knew where the censors would suddenly seize on something they regarded as a red line. I’ve seen dozens of colleagues leave the profession over the past few years and go into research or communications work (as I’ve also done at various times). You can’t be a journalist when you have to control your words, your thoughts and your choice of subjects. You can’t be a journalist if your editor in chief is a member of the group that gets daily instructions via WhatsApp from the head of the media unit at the NISS. Of course, that didn’t stop the NISS from censoring the newspapers, too. Once a censor banned a column by a prominent editor because the author started his piece with the phrase “what is surprising about Sudan.” The censor told him there was nothing surprising about Sudan.
But over the past few weeks, we’ve experienced a lifetime’s worth of change. The mass protests started out in the provinces in December, and by Christmas they had reached Khartoum. The demonstrations began organically, but then the SPA began leading the movement until April 6, when marchers surrounded army headquarters. Bashir, who is also wanted by the International Criminal Court, fell from power. His successor, Awad Ibn Auf, lasted only one day.
The protests are continuing. The Freedom and Change Coalition, which brings under its umbrella the SPA and various opposition parties and civil movements, continues to pressure the Transitional Military Council to hand over power to a civilian government. We know this is an almost impossible task. The army establishment, which has ruled contemporary Sudan since independence in 1956, has repeatedly staged coups against democratically elected governments. Now the military council clings to its power while hundreds of thousands continue to sleep on its doorstep every night.
Military rule generally doesn’t favor democracy or freedom of the press. Yet over the past 10 days, we have been living through a remarkable flowering of freedom of expression. Songs that were previously banned are now broadcast on the radio, and I find myself thinking I must’ve connected my phone to the car’s Bluetooth by mistake. Until two weeks ago, the Sudan News Agency, a mouthpiece of the ruling party, was explaining to readers why the SPA was illegal; now it’s publishing articles about the SPA’s call for marches and covering its news conferences.
The Sudanese people gave up on our official newspapers, our public and private television stations, and our radio stations a long time ago. For most of the past four months of protests, the media continued to reflect the mind-set of the ruling party. A few days into the demonstrations, state-run TV paraded young men it claimed were “saboteurs” responsible for the turmoil on the streets. The men were actually university students who had been dragged from their dorm rooms into prisons and beaten senseless into making confessions. Most Sudanese could guess what was going on. Now people on social media are saying that they’ve actually started watching Sudanese TV.
Those of us who wanted to report the truth tried to distance ourselves from this kind of media. Now we suddenly have a chance to tell the Sudanese what is really happening in their own society. The struggle ahead will be tough. But now that we’ve tasted freedom, it will be even harder to go back.