Internet Freedoms in Sudan
Sudan is no exception to the global trend in declining internet freedoms. Since early 2011 there have been annually recurring street protests, mostly led and coordinated by youth who use social media to organize, mobilize and disseminate information. In response the Sudanese government has increased its digital surveillance capacity, including the expansion of its Cyber Jihadist Unit. This unit (a department of the National Security and Intelligence Services) is responsible for the overarching surveillance of communications, including the tapping of phone calls of opposition groups; the hacking of social media, email accounts and opposition websites; and the intimidation of activists online.
In the last decade, Sudan has invested heavily in its telecommunications infrastructure and by 2013 had a steadily increasing internet penetration rate of 23 percent (up from 21 percent in 2012 and 19 percent in 2011). And a mobile penetration rate of 75 percent by the end of 2013, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). There is healthy market competition amongst four telecommunications providers and in 2012 Sudan had the cheapest post-paid costs in the Middle East and North Africa. A growing number of citizens, especially youth, browse the internet on their phones.
However all of these infrastructural and economic advantages are highly compromised by the backdrop of a State that has little respect for freedom of expression, association, participation and peaceful assembly. The Sudanese regime is amongst the worst globally for obstruction of access to independent and diverse sources of information both offline and online.
Since 2013, Freedom House’s Freedom of the Net report has included a chapter on Sudan. In 2013 and 2014 Sudan was categorized as a “Not Free” country with a score of 65 (out of 100) as compared to 63 in 2013. Out of 12 African countries surveyed, Sudan was one of three countries in the “Not Free” category, ranking eleventh–only ahead of Ethiopia.
Sudan Revolts (June-July 2012)
In response to the wave of protests triggered by economic austerity plans–known as #SudanRevolts–that hit the country between June and July 2012 the Sudanese authorities implemented for the first time a large-scale crackdown on and mass arrests of citizens and activists using digital platforms to communicate, connect, coordinate and mobilize.
The attacks on cyber dissidents during #SudanRevolts included the detention of digital activists, such as Usamah Mohammed (for posting a YouTube video), for up to two months; the forced exile of Sudan’s most prominent video blogger, Nagla’a Sid Ahmad; and the kidnapping and torture of the Darfurian online journalist Somia Hundosa. Moreover one of the most high profile political detainees, Jalila Khamis from the Nuba Mountains, spent nine months in detention without charge When she finally faced trial in December 2012, the main evidence against her was a YouTube video taken by Sid Ahmad, where Khamis testified about the shelling of civilians in the Nuba Mountains by the Government of Sudan (see chapter 2 for the case study on the digital campaign for Jalila Khamis).
“There have also been increased incidents of detentions and summons for interrogation of local journalists and digital journalists; banning of journalists from writing; and bringing of court cases against them by state entities. This has all contributed to a new trend of the establishment online newspapers. Examples include the establishment Al-Taghyeer and Al-Tareeg newspapers in 2013 and 2014 respectively.”
Migration of newspapers online and internet blackouts
Since the separation of South Sudan in 2011, the deteriorating situation of press freedoms, particularly in the traditional print media, has led to a highly restrictive environment with an unprecedented number of confiscations of newspapers after print–a practice that has severely impoverished newspapers. There have also been increased incidents of detentions and summons for interrogation of local journalists and digital journalists; banning of journalists from writing; and bringing of court cases against them by state entities. This has all contributed to a new trend of the establishment of online newspapers. Examples include the establishment Al-Taghyeer and Al-Tareeg newspapers in 2013 and 2014 respectively.
The Sudanese regime tried to adapt to this trend by extending its censorship arm online to indulge in technical violence targeting independent and opposition voices. This included hacking the websites of Sudan Tribune and 3ayin in April 2014 and hacking Sudanile, Hurriyat and 3ayin during the national elections in April 2015.
During the protests of September 2013, Sudan experienced a nationwide 24-hour internet blackout that Renesys, the worldwide internet intelligence company, stated was “the largest government-directed Internet blackout since Egypt in January 2011.” The Sudanese government denied that the blackout was intentional on its part, and blamed a fire in the offices of the telecom provider Canar. But many believe that the blackout was orchestrated by the government agency the National Telecommunications Corporation (NTC), as part of the Sudanese government’s response to the protests–which were heavily documented by citizens who circulated videos and images online that reflected the violent response of the regime. In response to this government claim, Renesys, stated that the internet blackout “strongly suggests a coordinated action to remove Sudan from the Internet”.