Sudan lifts media censorship but editors cautious

Sudan’s president ordered an end to state censorship of media last week, officials said, a move that will be seen as an important step towards the country’s first multi-party elections in more than 20 years.
Editors gave the announcement a cautious welcome, but some said they would still face pressure over sensitive stories.
“We had a meeting with President al-Bashir. He ordered a stop to censorship from today,” the chairman of Sudan’s national press council, the state regulator, Ali Shomo told Reuters.

Journalists have complained of regular censorship in recent years, saying security officers have made nightly visits to their offices to check and sometimes remove articles ahead of publication, despite constitutional guarantees of a free media.

Editors say print-runs have been seized and titles shut down, particularly when writers tried to tackle controversial subjects like the Darfur conflict and the International Criminal Court’s war crimes case against President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

The announcement came two weeks after newspaper editors said they sat down with officers from Sudan’s national security service to sign a code of journalistic conduct, seen as a precursor to the lifting of censorship.

A copy of the document, seen by Reuters, included broad promises for newspapers to be fair in their reporting, to respect religious and racial differences and to obey the law.
“It is a very important move,” said the editor of independently-owned Al-Khartoum newspaper Fadlallah Mohamed.
“Censorship is contrary to free press in Sudan. We are expecting the general election. It is very important to have a free press in such circumstances.”

Sudan is due to hold national elections in April 2010 under the terms of a faltering 2005 peace deal that ended the country’s north-south civil war.

Adil al-Baz, editor-in-chief of political daily Al-Ahdath, also welcomed the move but said it was unclear how the government would deal with media that broke the code of conduct.
“Perhaps they will to go to court or punish the newspaper by closing it. There is always a risk in this profession.”

Sudan’s Ajras al-Huriya newspaper, linked to the former southern rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), warned that journalists would still face pressure when writing about Darfur and other highly-charged topics.
“There is no way they (the security services) are going to tolerate anything about security, about the International Criminal Court,” said deputy editor-in-chief Faisal Silaik.

Sudan’s president, who came to power in a 1989 coup, has promised to lift censorship before, and opposition parties are allowed to back newspapers.

But journalists say censorship tightened in February 2008 after some articles accused the government of backing rebels in neighbouring Chad. Khartoum denies the accusation.

Sudanese reporters have been arrested during rare public protests against censorship and won the support of rights bodies including the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists and France’s Reporters Sans Frontieres.

Pic: President Omar Hassan al- Bashir of Sudan