Concern over Sudanese clampdown on social media activity
Over the last two months, four people in Sudan have been charged with defamation under the Cybercrimes Act, 2007 and Criminal Act, 1991 as well as breach of public order and morality under the Cybercrimes Act for statements shared via social media platforms, according to a report released this month by the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS).
Dr Esmat Mahmoud
The report documents that on 15 April 2018, the Office of the Prosecutor in charge of cybercrimes charged Dr Esmat Mahmoud, a Professor of Philosophy at the Faculty of Art at the University of Khartoum, with article 17 of the Cybercrimes Act, 2007, after the university filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office. Dr Mahmoud was arrested by the police from the university on 15 April and taken to the Office of the Prosecutor where he was interrogated about a Facebook post published on 14 April 2018 that raised concern over the Director of the University paying close attention to staff’s behaviour and how any slight mistake could lead to their files being taken to the Director’s office as opposed to the Human Resource Department. This has been viewed as a form of repression of the university staff.
The ACJPS also reflects that on 12 April 2018 at 5 pm, as reported at the time by Radio Dabanga, a group of police officers dressed in uniform and NISS officers dressed in plain clothes arrested Mohsin Musa from his home in Hajar Anaar neighbourhood of Kadugli in South Kordofan. He was then taken to the police station and charged with defamation under article 159 of the Criminal Act, 1991 and article 17 of Cybercrimes Act, 2007 following a complaint filed by Eisa Abakar, the Governor of South Kordofan.
Musa had previously voiced concerns over the lack of water, electricity, fuel services and increase of prices of basic commodities in South Kordofan on his Twitter account. He had also tweeted about the corruption in South Kordofan and mentioned that Abakar was privately benefiting from the gold mining in the state. The police interrogated him about his social media activity. Musa is still being detained by the police in Kadugli.
The On 21 April 2018, the police of Khartoum Bahri arrested Awadia Mursal and added her as a co-accused to the case against Musa. She is accused of using her Facebook account to share similar information published by Musa as well as making comments about Abakar’s commercial dealings. Mursal was later transferred to police custody in Kadugli in South Kordofan where the original case was filed.
On 4 April 2018, Saad Fadul was brought before the Office of the Prosecutor in charge of cybercrimes in Khartoum and charged with articles: 10 (crimes against property, data and communications by threats or blackmail), 14 (breach of public order and morality) and 16 (violation of religious beliefs or the sanctity of private life) of the Cybercrimes Act, 2007 after she shared a video via WhatsApp narrating a story of how she was dismissed from the Sudan Communication Company and replaced with Hind Al Bashir, a niece to Sudan’s President, Al Bashir.
The ACJPS also notes in its report that over the years, social media platforms have been increasingly used by Sudanese citizens to voice concerns over the governance of their country, among others. Given the restrictive space, the online platforms are seen as a medium to freely express concerns and commentary on different issues affecting the ordinary citizen. Sudanese activists have also relied on social media to run different campaigns including the 2016 civil disobedience campaign against anti-austerity measures. Various media houses in Sudan have also launched online news sites that have made it possible to publish articles on topics that might have otherwise been deemed red line topics and exposed them to pre-print or post print censorship and other restrictive tactics used by the authorities. However the Government has extended its repressive tactics and carried out arrests and interrogation of individuals for their online activity and relied on crimes under the Cybercrimes Act to charge individuals for their social media activity.
Right to freedom of expression
ACJPS urges the Sudanese authorities to respect and guarantee the right to freedom of expression as provided for in article 39 of the Interim National Constitution of 2005 and international and regional human rights treaties that Sudan is a state party to. ACJPS further urges the Government to ensure that this freedom is protected both online and off-line in accordance with the constitution and universally accepted standards. The Government should further instruct its law enforcement agencies to cease harassment and intimidation of individuals exercising their rights legitimately.
ACJPS also calls for the decriminalisation of defamation and proposed law reform within the country to adhere to regional and international standards to which Sudan has committed, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Government of Sudan has relied on restrictive laws to control press freedom as well as online activity. The Cybercrimes Act, 2007 criminalizes, among others, defamation, breach of public order and morality, which attract a prison sentence, fine or both. The Act however does not specify what would constitute defamation or breach of public order and morality.
In July 2017, Izzeldin Dahab, a journalist with El Jareeda newspaper, was charged with article 17 (defamation) of the Cybercrimes Act, 2007 in connection with an article published in El Jareeda newspaper on 10 April 2017 about corruption in the Ministry of Finance in South Darfur.
On 24 July 2017, during a government organised workshop, an information security expert emphasized importance of putting in place restrictive legislation aimed at combatting cybercrimes. The expert made reference to an increase in information related crimes citing statistics from the police showing an increase in cases from 72 cases in 2013 to 122 cases in 2014. He added that in 2015 the reported cases reached 462. He also pointed out the number of complaints on defamation via Facebook increased from 2016.
At the same workshop, Mohamed Yasin, the Director of the National Information Centre stated that the Cabinet Ministers had approved a new law on cybercrimes that was tabled before the Sudanese Parliament for approval. He also added that if adopted, the law would make Sudan one of the leading countries in combating cybercrimes. He mentioned that a team of experts were working hard to put in place strategies on how to deal with the information related crimes.
The government’s efforts to combat information related crimes have however been viewed as attempts to extend restrictions to online content with an aim of further suppressing dissenting voices.
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