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.
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.