The International Federation of Journalists today called on the Sudanese government to immediately lift repressive measures against foreign press coverage of the unfolding disaster in the west of the country where thousands of civilians have reportedly been massacred in a drama reminiscent of the Rwanda crisis ten years ago.
Since a ceasefire was signed in the western province of Darfur almost two weeks ago, the Sudanese government has continued to restrict access for the media to the region. According to reports from journalists working in the region, applications for visas to the capital Khartoum are increasingly difficult to obtain and additional travel permits are now required to gain access to conflict areas such as Darfur.
“Journalists are facing intolerable bureaucratic constraints and delays in this registration process,” said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. “If anything censorship and intimidation of the media only makes matters worse and increases uncertainty, fear and ignorance”.
In what Human Rights Watch has termed a “scorched-earth campaign”, joint attacks by government forces and the so-called janjaweed militias have resulted in summary executions, rape, and looting of displaced civilians.
Although Arab and African communities in Darfur for decades have intermittently clashed over land and scarce resources, the current conflict began 14 months ago when two new rebel groups emerged. The Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) demanded that the Sudanese government stop arming the Arab groups in Darfur and address longstanding grievances over underdevelopment in the region.
In response, the government launched a massive bombing campaign which, combined with the raids of the marauding militias, have forced more than 800,000 people from their homes and sent an additional 110,000 people into neighboring Chad.
The IFJ is saying that the number of newspapers that have been closed and journalists detained over the past year for trying to challenge a “blackout” of information has continued to increase. Last year, the Khartoum Monitor, Sudan's only English-language daily, was suspended for a total of more than six months on seven separate occasions. From September to December 2003, the government temporarily suspended the newspapers Alwan, Al-Azminah and Al-Ayyam.
On 10 April 2004, Islam Salih, Al-Jazeera's Khartoum bureau chief, was convicted of "disseminating false news" and sentenced to one month in prison and a one million Sudanese pound (approx. US$3,800) fine. He faces another month in prison if he does not pay the fine. According to the Sudanese authorities Salih was released after 14 days in prison and his case is currently pending a hearing in the Appeals Court.
The IFJ recalls that in August last year, the Sudanese government stated that press censorship would be lifted, but instead they have continually harassed and intimidated the media.
The IFJ is saying that the ceasefire in Darfur is a welcome first step but requires immediate and rigorous international monitoring to avert a humanitarian disaster, serious human rights abuses and continued civilian displacement.
“The international community must involve itself in order to put a stop to an escalating culture of impunity,” said White.
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The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 100 countries