Sudan slammed on press harassment

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afrol News, 23 January - The independent daily Khartoum Monitor faces massive problems after reporting on the ongoing slave raids in Sudan. The editor and the newspaper have been fined for "propagating false news" in a trial described as "summary and unfair" by human rights groups.

On 15 January, Nhial Bol, the Khartoum Monitor's Chief Editor, was sentenced to six months imprisonment unless he pays a fine of 5 million Sudanese dinars (about US$ 1,905). The newspaper was fined 15 million Sudanese dinars (about US$ 5,703). Its assets are under threat of seizure if the fine is not paid.

Nhial Bol was convicted of "propagating false news" for having published an article suggesting government complacency towards slave raiders in Sudan. The human rights group Amnesty International yesterday claimed the trial was both "summary and unfair.

Mr Bol was detained for two days, at which time Amnesty considered him to be a prisoner of conscience, held solely for the peaceful expression of his opinions. He was tried just hours after being arrested and his defence lawyer was not allowed to talk during the trial. 

Nhial Bol was released on 17 January after Khartoum Monitor staff members managed to pay his fine. The defence lawyer lodged an appeal against the sentence on 19 January. However, the fine against the Khartoum Monitor still stands.

Amnesty now calls on the Sudanese authorities to "stop harassing the independent daily Khartoum Monitor and its staff," claiming the "Sudanese authorities are using excessive fines and unfair and arbitrary trials to curtail freedom of expression." The group believes that the Khartoum Monitor is harassed because of its articles critical of the Sudanese government.

The "Khartoum Monitor" was established in 2000 by journalists coming from southern Sudan, much of which has been at war with the Sudanese government for 17 years. It is the main newspaper that publishes articles relating to southern Sudan, the war and peace proposals and initiatives, issues on which the government exercises heavy censorship. 

Since it began publishing, the newspaper has had its publication temporarily halted, its staff harassed, intimidated and arbitrarily detained and its articles censored, according to information published by Amnesty. Recent charges filed by the Sudanese authorities against the staff of the Khartoum Monitor relate to articles on the war and peace proposals, interpreted as offences ranging from "sedition" to "war against the state".

The Sudanese authorities have repeatedly denied the existence of slavery in the country, stating that it is a problem of traditional tribal abductions over which they have little control. 

Human rights organisations however report that the government, as part of its counter-insurgency effort against armed opposition groups in the South, supports militias based in Western Sudan. These militias are responsible for raiding villages and abducting civilians. Abducted civilians are reportedly used as unpaid domestics or labourers.

In December 2001, the government announced that censorship would be lifted against all newspapers, including the Khartoum Monitor. The newspaper had to sign, prior to this announcement, a code of ethics that exhorts journalists to respect "national achievements" and to avoid certain issues, including "insulting armed forces or mujahedin and martyrs" or "publicising moral accusations against the country". 

However, on 10 January 2002, the authorities reimposed censorship on the Khartoum Monitor, allowing security services to screen articles before they are published.

The new charges against the Khartoum Monitor "amount to a restriction of the fundamental right to freedom of expression and should be dropped," Amnesty said in a statement released yesterday.

The offence of 'propagation of false news' under Section 66 of the Sudanese Penal Code, punishable by imprisonment for up to six months or a fine of an unspecified amount, "can be interpreted by the Sudanese authorities to include any criticism of the government," the group maintains.

Sources: Based on Amnesty and afrol archives

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