Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Sudanese press suffers under economic woes

Originally published @

The year 2013 was a year of economic woes for everyone in the newspaper industry in Sudan. For the first time in years, inflation is rapidly heading towards the 50% mark, with the Sudanese pound (SDG) losing over half of its value.  As a result, newspapers initially had to change their price from 1 SDG to 1.5 SDG and then eventually to 2 SDG by November 2013.

This increase has turned newspapers into a luxury, like the expensive English butter biscuits gathering dust on the shelves of supermarkets. 

A few days ago, Al-Ayam newspaper, one of the few independent newspapers in Sudan, published figures indicating a 50% decrease in the circulation of newspapers in general in 2013 compared to the year before, while many newspapers were forced out of business.

Al-Ayam, one of Sudan's oldest newspapers, was established in the 1950’s and survived a number of dictatorships that censored it and even shut it down for years.  However, the outlet is desperately struggling at the moment, clinging onto a life jacket in a bid to survive the current economic wave.
"Nearly 80% of the issues printed are sold, which is good distribution.  However, we don't print the same issues every day - we print based on our financial situation," said Ahmed Al-Sheikh, an editor at Al-Ayam.

Al-Ayam receives practically no revenue from advertising, meaning that the newspaper has to survive on its distribution funds, and the instability this has produced has led to many journalists leaving its payroll.
Death of the rebel
Two months ago, Al-Qarar newspaper disappeared from the newsstands. Al-Qarar, known by journalists as "an act of rebellion," was launched by journalists who were frustrated at working in newspapers owned by businessmen. It was first printed in October 2012 with founders who decided that they wouldn’t take salaries until the newspaper was able to stand on its feet.  It never did.
"I was committed to the newspaper and what it represents so I stayed there, although I made less than what I made two years ago at another newspaper.  Sometimes, the pay came months late," said Ayman Senjrab, the news editor at Al-Qarar.

Like others at Al-Qarar, Senjrab was practically a volunteer, but he and his colleagues enjoyed working at a newspaper and the unique experience it entailed. The well-known journalist is currently waiting to hear whether "the rebel" will be back in business or not, but he is concerned for its future. The newspaper has to pay back debts it owes to the publishing house, but in reality, it needs to get back into business to recoup the money it owes.

"I expect to see more newspapers collapsing with this deteriorating economy, and the independent newspapers will lose the battle first," Senjrab told DCMF.

Along with Al-Qarar, many newspapers, covering sports, as well as political and social affairs, have had to stop printing, and they have done so making very little noise. Al-Akhbar, Noon, Al-Mawaj Al-Azraq, Sada-Al-Malaab, Al-Helal, Al-Mereikh, Al-Shabka, New Sport, Super and Fanon have all disappeared from the kiosks in Khartoum. 

Untenable expenses
The circulation of political newspapers went from 258,000 to between 130,000 and 140,000 in 2013 with sports newspapers’ numbers also dropping, and social affairs newspapers suffering a 40% loss in circulation.

At the beginning of 2013, many newspapers were complaining over the prices of paper, which had more than doubled following the austerity measures of 2012.  At the end of 2013, the government implemented another wave of austerity measures, this time removing fuel subsidies, which caused a rapid increase in all prices and led to a week of protests and violence, during which dozens of civilians were allegedly killed by security forces and members of the media were targeted.

In Jackson square, a public transportation station in Khartoum where thousands flock every day, at a corner next to a shop selling dates, a sole vendor sits showcasing different newspapers on a table. At least a dozen people stand around the table, with heads bowed in an attempt to read the headlines and some important news - but noone is buying. The seller doesn't bother anyone "reading" unless they decide to hold the newspaper to flip a page.

Hussein Mohamed Ali rents a kiosk next to the locality building in Omdurman. Officially he sells newspapers, but to make ends meet, he also sells phone credit, stationery and other items. He explained that "people stand in front of my kiosk and skim the newspapers, less people are buying newspapers now."

"The people who used to buy three newspapers now buy one newspaper, that’s why I return 60% of the newspapers at the end of the day because I am not able to sell them," he added.
The current price of 2 SDG only remains following a serious struggle by newspapers, after publishers circulated a statement last year saying that the price would increase to 2.5 SDG, arguing that they had already endured significant losses to avoid price increases.

Newspapers also blamed
Al-Nour Ahmed Al-Nour, who is a columnist for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper and also writes for Al-Taghyeer newspaper in Khartoum, said that in the midst of the current economic crisis, people are focusing on buying bread and other staples as opposed to newspapers.
"The newspapers are expensive, but also the lack of press freedoms is negatively affecting how newspapers tackle different issues, and this has created newspapers that are unfulfilling to readers." said Al-Nour.

Al-Sheikh agreed with Al-Nour adding that there is a serious problem of credibility.
"Security pressures made newspapers very far from their readers.  For example, if a citizen sees a protest in their neighbourhood and it is not reported tomorrow in the newspaper, they lose faith in the newspaper," said Al-Sheikh.

Before it stopped printing, daily political newspaper Al-Qarar had only 16 staff members; significantly fewer than the number generally required to run such an operation.

The economic situation is making it very difficult for newspapers to hire and retain qualified staff, leading to a double-edged sword, newspapers have to settle for less qualified staff or trainees, but this in turn leads to them losing the readership attracted to the well-known journalists they might previously have hired.

Outside the capital
Almost all newspapers are focused and printed in Sudan's capital, Khartoum. However, two cities outside Khartoum have newspapers, and Port Sudan in Eastern Sudan has three local newspapers. 
Abdelhady Al-Haj, the former managing editor of Port Sudan - My City, told DCMF that the price of newspapers in the city has increased by between 0.50 SDG and 1 SDG in comparison to those in Khartoum, meaning that papers now cost between 2.50 SDG and 3 SDG.

"The bigger problem is that the newspapers are printed in Khartoum and then transported by bus to Port Sudan.  They reach there in the late afternoon and the distribution period is in the evening until 3 pm the next day," explained Al-Haj, highlighting the fact that while they subsequently have to pay more, readers are provided with news much later than others.

Port Sudan - My City used to print between 6,000 and 7,000 copies a day when Al-Haj worked there.
"Now, the newspaper prints 2,000 or 3,000 copies, because the circulation has dropped and distributors started complaining," he said.

 The result is that journalists in Port Sudan, much like their colleagues based elsewhere across the country, are being forced to pursue other professional opportunities, in many cases leaving behind a profession that they love because it is no longer a viable option in the current economic climate.

On September Protests

Saturday's protest began after Sanhouri was buried in Buri cemetery. The protesters marched for two hours from Buri to Street 60, one of the main streets in Khartoum.

"The police began firing heavy tear gas and rubber bullets to crack down on the protest, then the live bullets began," said Hamid Mohamed, an engineer who joined the burial and protest. Mohamed's friend was injured by a rubber bullet to his head and taken to the hospital right away. 
"I saw an older man who was shot in his leg by a live bullet," Mohamed told Al-Monitor in an interview. He added that there were more injuries, but because people dispersed he could only confirm the ones he witnessed.

Peaceful is what activists have called the ongoing protests in Sudan, which began in Medani, the capital of Jazeera state, on Sept. 23, a day after President Omar al-Bashir announced new economic measures to save the collapsing Sudanese economy. Economic measures include the lifting of fuel subsidies, which immediately caused prices to double.
The protests in Medani saw civilian deaths as well as the burning of gas stations, the symbol of this round of economic measures. The next day, the anger spread to Khartoum and other cities in Sudan. 
On Sept. 25, the building of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) in the Ombada locality in Khartoum state was burned to ashes in addition to two police stations and various gas stations. 
The Sudanese government has refused to admit that protests are happening in Khartoum, accusing instead the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), a coalition of armed movements, of instigating acts of violence in the state and referring to the protesters as homeless people and thugs.

State television and government-owned newspapers have reiterated the government's message, showing videos of groups of youth burning cars and vandalizing, while activists and independent media have accused the government of using thugs to scare the public and imposing a media blackout, as various newspapers were confiscated and the Internet shut off for over a day.

However, speaking to the national radio on Sept. 27, Sudanese Interior Minister Ibrahim Mahmoud admitted that over 600 people who took part in the protests have been detained since last week. While Mahmoud spoke, Omdurman city — a locality in Khartoum state — was brewing, as thousands of protesters walked for over an hour from Wad Nobawi to Street 40.

It was 16-year-old Sara Yousif's first protest, the first time she expressed her anger at the government. Yousif just took the high school exam and will go to college next month. "I am out because I want the government to leave; we want a better life," said Yousif, who was encouraged by the pictures of protests she received on WhatsApp, the smartphone instant messaging application.

Yousif marched with her sister, cousin, aunts and uncle. The group walked to Wad Nobawi, where the protest began, joining large numbers in chants calling for the toppling of the government, screaming that they will give their blood and lives to Sudan.

Each time the protest passed soldiers, riot police and security agents, they chanted the word peaceful, emphasizing that they are unarmed protesters who only want to express themselves.After an hour of marching and chanting, the protest stopped, and the protesters began singing the national anthem. At this point, riot police and security soldiers surrounded the large protest from the front and the back and shot tear gas canisters and live bullets.

"They used live ammunition and this dispersed the protest. We were on the main road, so I hid in one of the houses that opened their doors to the protesters," Samira Ahmed, one of the protesters, told Al-Monitor.

The scene was chaotic with several thousand protesters running into side streets and houses on the main street. Some leaving their bags and shoes behind, some fell to the ground, injured, while others were lost and confused, searching for their loved ones.
Yousif found herself alone, separated from her elder sister, who had been holding her hand, as well as other family members. "I ran into one of the houses, then jumped the wall to another house and then jumped many walls before I found myself on a side street. I then ran to my aunt's house," said Yousif, who was worried about her family at the time.

Some protesters found safety, some went to the hospital with broken bones and gunshot wounds, while others were arrested. 

The Sudanese government has admitted the deaths of 33 people due to "uncontrolled gangs"; however, the Sudanese Doctors Syndicate estimated that 210 people have been killed during the protests.
"My neighborhood in Omdurman was a war zone for days. We kept screaming as they fired tear gas and live bullets, while men from my neighborhood were injured and others died," Fatima Saeed, who works for an international nongovernmental organization, told Al-Monitor.
Saeed wants regime change in Sudan, but cannot comprehend how much more lives will be lost. "Our strong protests have been suppressed by the live bullets, and they have arrested many youth in my neighborhood. The security has a list of names they arrest from," Saeed said.
The protests continued on Sept. 29 in Kassala, eastern Sudan, and spread to Ahfad University for Women on Sept 30.

“We are locked inside the campus, the police are surrounding us and we are chanting against the regime. They fired tear gas at us on campus,” said Ola Abdullah, who spoke to Al-Monitor on the phone.
It is unclear how the violence will impact the nonviolent nature of the protests, but until today protesters have insisted that their protests will remain peaceful.

All names were altered to protect the identity of the interviewees.