Sudan journalists on mass hunger strike
KHARTOUM (AFP) — Sudanese journalists launched a mass hunger strike on Tuesday, and three independent newspapers stopped work for three days in the country's biggest organised media protest against draconian censorship.
Between 150 and 300 journalists began a 24-hour hunger strike and the Ajras Al-Hurriya, Al-Maidan and Rayal Al-Shab newspapers halted production, saying they could no longer accept government restrictions over editorial content.
"We are going to stop for three days as a start. We are going on a food strike for a minimum of 24 hours," said Salah Ahmed Alkagam, head of the board of directors of Ajras Al-Hurriya and one of the protest organisers.
"We are going to protest against this sad practice against freedoms. We just want our constitutional rights," he added.
Sudan's interim constitution, which is supposed to guide the country through a six-year phased implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended two decades of civil war, upholds freedom of the press and expression.
But laws guaranteeing press freedom have yet to be passed, and security officials inspect the editions of every newspaper nightly.
Editors who resist censorship risk their publications being banned outright or confiscated from distribution offices.
Journalists say news articles and editorials are banned, particularly on subjects deemed particularly sensitive such as the conflict in Darfur, corruption and human rights.
Alkagam said the 95 people working for Ajras Al-Hurriya would be going on the hunger strike, joined by more than 40 from Rayal Al-Shab and another 22 from communist Al-Maidan, as well as other print journalists.
Two other reporters on strike said 250 to 300 people were refusing food.
The protest is also highlighting the frequent arrests of journalists.
On Sunday, security officials arrested a journalist from pro-government newspaper Al-Intibaha over an article about a mysterious fever that allegedly broke out in Western Kordofan, his colleagues and wife said.
Noor Ahmed told AFP her husband, Salah Bab Alah, was arrested with his editor in chief, who has since been released. On Tuesday, she said security officers told her to bring some of his clothes to the detention centre.
Alkagam said his newspaper, whose name means Freedom Bells in English, had failed to appear more than 20 times since its April 7 launch owing to censors.
He called for funding from the European Union, United Nations and United States' Agency for International Development in order to keep going.
Although the paper represents a wide spectrum of views, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the former southern rebels who joined a national coalition government following the 2005 peace agreement, owns around 30 percent.
Edward Lino, SPLM chairman in the flashpoint oil-rich region of Abyei, where critics said his arrival this year quickened a descent into fighting in May, supported the protest after censors cut a recent interview with him.
He voiced fears that censorship would affect the outcome and reporting of national elections, which are scheduled to be held by July.
"It will affect how people are going to campaign ... and how the results are going to come out. So it's a very dangerous road," Lino told reporters.
Sudan's robust media includes around 30 independent dailies, representing a range of political views, according to Reporters Without Borders.
The watchdog said in its 2008 annual report that Faisal el-Bagir, from the weekly communist newspaper and four other colleages received death threats last December, apparently in connection with reports on Darfur.