Saturday, May 18, 2013

Sudan's shift from print to online newspapers

Bringing together journalists banned from writing in newspapers, Al-Taghyeer offers a chance for greater freedom online

In July 2011, while South Sudan was celebrating its independence, National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) officers walked into Ahjras Al-Hurriya, a daily newspaper, in Khartoum, and closed it down. They told the staff that since the newspaper has foreign, in this case South Sudanese, investors, it is prohibited from publishing. The newspaper’s license was taken away a month later, not giving it space to challenge the decision of closure.
Rasha Awad was the head of the political section at the newspaper at the time. A month later, she became a columnist in Al-Jareeda, an independent daily newspaper.  But that did not last long.
Awad was stopped from writing in early 2012.  While the NISS does not legally stop journalists from publishing, it issues directives to newspapers asking them to stop a certain journalist writing if they want to avoid confiscations of newspaper issues or even closure.
By the end of 2012, the list of journalists not allowed to write in Sudanese newspapers grew to at least fifteen.
Some of them found other professions, or took on editing roles in newspapers, some decided to take matters into their own hands and start their own newspaper, an electronic newspaper.
On World Press Freedom Day, Al-Taghyeer, an electronic newspaper, was launched. The newspaper’s name, which means “Change,” is enough to make the government uneasy, its byline reads “Our Bet is on the People,” and the newspaper’s writers, although known for their excellent reporting, are names that have been stopped from writing, detained and even tortured, or had lost their jobs due to newspapers closing down or cutting back on staff.
“Journalism should seek to create positive change in the society,” said Awad who is an editor at Al-Taghyeeradding that “the newspaper seeks to be professional in its reporting, but biased in shedding light on topics that are not covered in mainstream media.”
Awad said that in covering wars, corruption or human rights, they have to cover all sides in their reports, and this is where their professional abilities play a role; it is not about the topics they cover, it is about how they cover them.
The newspaper has attracted journalists such as Abu-Zar Al-Ameen who was detained and tortured for over a year, Khalid Fadul, who was banned from writing last year, veteran journalist and columnist, Faisal Mohamed Salih and Stella Getiano, a South Sudanese journalist and writer who was a staple in Sudanese newspapers before moving to Juba in 2012.
Now in its second week, the newspaper has covered the conflicts and political developments in Sudan, the displacement that will be caused by the dams in East and Central Sudan. It also distinguished itself by having a profile, a gender and a youth section, which are the kind of sections disappearing from other newspapers.
Salah Ammar who is in charge of the newspaper’s youth section said that it seeks to publish stories that touch on their readers’ concerns.
“85% of our readers so far are from Khartoum, although we think that the parameter of Khartoum could include the states that are bordering Khartoum. We also have an 80% readership in the 23-34 age-group on Facebook,” he told Doha Centre for Media Freedom.
Ammar added that although stories that are focused on one region or a state outside Khartoum are very difficult to research and write, they usually have low readership.
“In all cases, we are focused on bringing in the stories of Sudan’s periphery because they are important although the readers want national stories not local stories,” added Ammar who wrote an exclusive investigate piece citing that 150,000 face displacement in the states of Kassala and Gedarif in East Sudan due to dams.
Al-Taghyeer took six months to get up and running; the website was designed, the authors were attracted and many meetings took place to discuss the editorial line of the newspaper as well as to discuss the myriad of security problems that the newspaper could face.
“From the beginning, we decided that our articles will be professional and accurate to avoid any legal hurdles, but, if we face any other troubles, we will pursue peaceful advocacy like we always do,” said Awad.
Discouraging Experiences
The early 2000s saw an increase in online Sudanese newspapers. The website Sudanese-Online was already popular when two new online newspapers, Sudanile and Al-Nilin came into the picture in 2000 and 2001 respectively.
In 2003, a non-profit English-language newspaper called Sudan Tribune was launched from France. Then came Hurriyat and Al-Rakoba which were quickly branded as “opposition” newspapers.
Although they were already familiar with the problems faced by online newspapers from financial hurdles to harassment to blocking by the National Telecommunications Corporation (NTC), the staff of Al-Taghyeer held discussions with other electronic newspapers.
“We found the experience of Sudanile the most relevant to us because it is based in Sudan while the other websites are based abroad,” said Awad.
In a cafe in Khartoum, Tariq Al-Gizouli, the founder and editor-in-chief of Sudanile spoke about his frustrating experience in running one of Sudan’s top online newspapers, solely due to financial pressures and lack of advertisements.
“We started with a staff of 15, but slowly, people left due to lack of revenue. People think Sudanile is an institution, in fact Sudanile has one employee - myself,” said Al-Gizouli adding that every time he pursues an advertiser and manages to get advertisement, they pull out due to pressure from authorities.
Sudanile is the embodiment of challenge; Al-Gizouli uses personal resources to keep it moving and the end result is a balanced newspaper that attracts some of the biggest names in Sudanese journalism.
“Because I live in Sudan, I have a specific legal position, so I go through all articles for accuracy because I am directly responsible for the content. Sometimes I feel that if I leave, I will have more freedom to runSudanile, in a less stressful environment,” said Al-Gizouli who still gets summoned by NISS and receives messages to remove content.
Sudanile along with Hurriyat and Al-Rakoba have been subjected to hacking and even blocking. Sudanile has been hacked nine times, and on certain occasions, the hackers managed to close the website down for a number of days.
In October 2011, hackers entered Sudanile’s website through Al-Gizouli’s Facebook account. Calling themselves the “Sudan Cyber Army,” the hackers put the logo of the Republic of Sudan on the website and damaged many files, targeting the articles of specific authors.
When Al-Gizouli went to the electronic crimes unit in Khartoum North and to the NTC, he was told the website is a “.com” and not “.sd”, in other words, the NTC could only track hackers if the website was locally-hosted.
“Things escalated when the hacker hacked the server of my host in the US and my host sent me the address and phone number of the building where the hacking took place,” recalled Al-Gizouli.
His case came to a dead-end and he was told to stop pursuing it, but the hackers learned their lesson. Next time, in 2012, the website was hacked from India and Ukraine making Al-Gizouli even more confused about pursuing legal procedures.
Why the online crackdown?
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimates that 10% of the population in Sudan had internet access by December 2011. However, this statistics does not take into account the 26.3 million cell-phone subscriptions out of a population of 34 million.
Daily internet rates are as low as 1 SDG ($0.17) a day, enabling students and youth to access the internet from their phone.
Following the closures of newspapers such as Al-Midan, the Communist Party’s Mouthpiece, Rai Al-Shab, the mouthpiece of the Popular Congress Party as well as the independent Ahjras Al-Hurriya, and Al-Tayar and the long-term suspension of Alwan and Al-Jareeda, journalists had no choice but to enter the digital age quickly, hoping that their traditional readers would cyber-locate them and that they would be able to attract youth readers.
In 2012, the editor-in-chief and managing editor of Hurriyat, El-Hag Warrag and Abdel-Moniem Suleiman were awarded the Oxfam Nobin/PEN award for persecuted writers who continue working.
“Our plan of action is if we face security issues, we will not compromise on our editorial line,” Awad told DCMF.
Al-Gizouli also said that he is not planning to compromise, even when different bodies tempt him with steady advertisements if he censors the published articles.

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