How we are failing to cover the Sudan protests

Government-imposed restrictions on press freedoms and a preference for simplified narratives in many foreign media outlets contribute to inadequate reporting on Sudan.

On December 19, 2018, high school students in the northern Sudanese town of Atbara took to the streets to protest the tripling of bread prices. Soon after, protests broke out in other cities, including the capital Khartoum. They demanded that President Omar al-Bashir step down.

Fuelled by anger over years of authoritarian rule, civil war, economic mismanagement, corruption and a possible amendment of the constitution to extend his rule, these have been the most serious anti-government protests against al-Bashir’s rule since he came to power during a military coup in 1989.

Sudanese security forces responded with arrests, tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. The government says 24 have died — activists say the number is higher.

The protests are now into their third month. And the government has been trying to control the flow of information about the protests by occasionally disrupting internet connectivity, access to social media platforms and most importantly, through media censorship.

I reported from Sudan for eight years as a freelance journalist, mostly for The New York Times and CNN. I have also covered protests in the past.

Covering Sudan is not easy. Not for domestic reporters nor for local and visiting foreign correspondents. It is a big country with a frustrating bureaucracy and complex political and social-cultural scenes.

Two challenges come to the fore while reporting on Sudan, and especially when covering a protest of this kind — government-imposed restrictions on press freedoms, and a preference for simplified narratives in many foreign media outlets.

Sudan ranks 174 out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 press freedom ranking. There are more than one hundred press freedom violations reportedly cited since the current wave of protests erupted. Newspapers have repeatedly been prevented from publishing reports related to the protests. Security forces have threatened, assaulted, summoned for questioning and detained scores of local journalists. Authorities have said they would bring charges against 38 journalists and online activists, including 28 in the diaspora, for allegedly “spreading false information.”

The Sudanese government has particularly been fearful of photographs and videos emerging out of the protests, especially in reports produced by Arabic-language media that can ignite opinion on the streets.

Six Arabic satellite station correspondents have had their work permits revoked. While only a handful of English-language correspondents are based in Khartoum, Yousra Elbagir of the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 left the country after being told by the national intelligence officers that she could no longer report and could be charged with the serious crime of “inciting hatred against the state.”

Correspondents for international outlets based in nearby regional bureau headquarters like Cairo or Nairobi, seeking to go to Sudan, have had their entry visa requests ignored, if not denied. Some even contacted me to see if there were intermediaries in Khartoum to lobby for an entry visa. From my experience, during times like these, it is unlikely to happen.

There’s another element that compounds the challenge of reporting in Sudan — telling stories through sweeping generalizations. For long, Sudan stories were overwhelmingly reported through the rigid frameworks of ethnicity and religion, African versus Arab, Muslim versus Christian. These often overlook the nuances of identity, the details of politics and economics, and ignore alternative Sudanese voices in the multicultural country.

So when these protests began to shake the country, many observers seemed unsure what to make of them. That the responsibility for covering Sudan in international media falls on different regional bureaus, with many reporters disengaged from relevant information in another region or because of language barriers, has contributed to the problem of inadequate coverage.

Managing Sudan’s coverage from Cairo has meant that its news is usually at the bottom of interest in a region where events in Syria, Israel, Palestine, Iraq and Egypt are likely to get more attention. So, editors come late to the story, if at all.

Some of the first questions following the current protests have been along the lines of: “is this a late Arab Spring?” This illustrates a lack of awareness of Sudan’s history with protests — those of 2011, 2012 and 2013 (when nearly 200 were killed), let alone the successful popular uprisings of 1964 and 1985 against military rule, the first in the region.

In a powerful piece for The Guardian, columnist Nesrine Malik wrote of human rights activists’ slow reaction to current protests in Sudan. “There is no narrative, you see, no ethnic angle, no religious angle, no duality that an advocate can wedge themselves between and sell. It’s just a good old-fashioned uprising in a dusty Saharan country where the virtue dividends for an intermediary are low,” Malik wrote. This astute observation can also extend to international media coverage of the country

Given the clampdown on the media, I think “the revolution will not be televised.” Cell-phone photographs and videos from protesters and citizen journalists have been the main sources of media material from the demonstrations. This information stream, however, is often difficult to verify, and at times, plain fake news. Pro-government online trolls further make the web a murkier space during times of protest.

The solution to reliable reporting in Sudan lies in reinstating fundamental rights within Sudan and reversing conventional approaches that come from outside of it.

Until press freedom is respected in Sudan and international outlets seek out stories beyond sensationalized clichés and click baits, accurate reporting on the country will fall short.

In times of calm or during protests, Sudan deserves better.