Social media restricted in Sudan

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Sudanese authorities are blocking access to popular social media platforms used to organise and broadcast nationwide anti-government protests triggered by an economic crisis, internet users say.

Sudan has been rocked by near-daily demonstrations over the past two weeks. Protesters set alight ruling party buildings and called on President Omar al-Bashir, who took power in 1989, to step down.

In a country where the state tightly controls traditional media, the internet is a key information battleground. Of Sudan’s 40 million people, some 13 million use the internet and more than 28 million own mobile phones, local media say.

Authorities have not repeated the internet blackout imposed during protests in 2013. The head of Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service, Salah Abdallah, told a rare news conference in December: “There was a discussion in government about blocking social media sites and in the end it was decided to block them.”

Users of the country’s three main telecommunications operators “” Zain, MTN and Sudani “” said access to Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp is only possible through use of a virtual private network (VPN).

VPNs bring their own connection problems and some Sudanese are unaware of their existence, activists use them widely to organise and document demonstrations.

Hashtags in Arabic such as “Sudan’s_cities_revolt” are widely circulated abroad from Sudan. Hashtags in English such as #SudanRevolts are also used.

“Social media has a big impact and it helps form public opinion and transmitting what’s happening in Sudan to the outside,” said Mujtaba Musa, a Sudanese Twitter user with over 50,000 followers who is active in documenting protests.

NetBlocks, a digital rights NGO, said data it collected, including from thousands of Sudanese volunteers, provided evidence of “an extensive internet censorship regime”.

Bader al-Kharafi, CEO of parent company Zain Group, told Reuters: “Some websites may be blocked for technical reasons beyond the company’s specialisation.”

Neither the National Telecommunications Corporation, which oversees the sector in Sudan, nor MTN or Sudani could be reached for comment. Twitter and Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, declined to comment.

“While Sudan has a long history of systematically censoring print and broadcast media, online media has been relatively untouched despite exponential growth in recent years,” said Mai Truong of US-based advocacy group Freedom House.

“The authorities have now started to follow the playbook of other authoritarian governments.”