More arrests and prosecutions of journalists and online dissidents in Sudan, and law revisions that have opened the door to prosecuting them, have withheld the Sudanese of enjoying freedom on the internet in 2016. But there were no deliberate internet shutdowns in Sudan.
The status 'Not Free' is applicable again to Sudan in the new 'Freedom on the Net' report by the US-based Freedom House, a NGO that advocates for human rights. Sudan scored low in the index owing to numerous violations of user rights and cyber-attacks on online media.
The internet freedom improved marginally, however. There were no reports of deliberate internet shutdowns in Sudan during the coverage period, marking an improvement from the previous period when a five-day internet blackout was reported in the western Darfur region of Sudan.
Overall, Sudan's internet penetration grew to 27 percent in 2015, while mobile phone penetration declined slightly from 72 to 71 percent.
Press law revision
A drawback for Sudan's internet freedom is the introduction of revisions to the 2004 Press and Printed Press Materials Law in 2015, that aim to regulate online media and provide a legal framework to prosecute online journalists. An appointed committee comprised of the security officers, journalists, and experts held its first meeting in May.
Because traditional media face more restrictions by pre-publication censorship, confiscations of print-runs, and warnings from security agents of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) about taboo topics, the internet “remains a relatively open space for freedom of expression” and “bold voices”. “Online news outlets such as Altareeg, Altaghyeer, Radio Dabanga, Hurriyat, and Alrakoba cover controversial topics such as corruption and human rights violations.”
'As a result, Sudanese citizens increasingly rely on online outlets and social media for uncensored information.'
Now that WhatsApp has become particularly popular among Sudanese who have turned to the platform’s relative privacy to share critical news via the app’s group chat function, the Sudanese government has shifted tactics over the past year. A systematic strategy to manipulate online conversations through the so-called Cyber Jihadist Unit has created “a chilling effect” on freedom of expression online.
Operating under the NISS, the Cyber Jihadist Unit frequently hacks websites, as well as monitors content posted on blogs, social media websites, and online newspaper forums, and infiltrates in online discussions to ascertain information about dissidents. Cyber-attacks on Sudanese newspapers such as El Tareeg in May were determined as distributed denial of service (DdoS) attacks.
The report states that fears of government surveillance and arbitrary legal consequences have pushed online journalists and ordinary users into self-censorship. Facebook posts and even messages in WhatsApp might be leaked to the authorities. In January 2016, the administrator of a WhatsApp group for journalists was charged with libel under the IT Crime Act for a message that criticised the Minister of Health.
But Sudanese social media users have become more willing to organise themselves to launch online campaigns to address political concerns this year, according to the Freedom of the Net report. In one incident, public pressure fueled by online activism helped lead to the release of arrested students who participated in the April 2016 demonstrations at the University of Khartoum.
Cyber Jihadist Unit monitors Sudan's online communication (10 December 2014)