- The Sudanese government's incessant intolerance towards the press is exhibited in the form of harassment and killing, which according to human rights organisations, and makes reporting from its conflict-ravaged regions close to impossible. It is further undermining the implementation of the peace agreement between Khartoum and its former southern rebels.
Everyone expected Sudan to launch large-scale investigations into the gruesome murder of Mohamed Taha Mohamed Ahmed, the editor of the Islamist 'al-Wifaq' newspaper, who was killed in September. Rather, the Sudanese government has imposed a ban on comments regarding the case of Mr Ahmed, whose body was found decapitated on 6 September, a day after armed groups abducted him in his Khartoum home.
The New York-based human rights group, Human Rights Watch, today frowned upon what it called "blatant effort to muzzle and intimidate the independent press."
"While international media attention has been focused on Darfur, the Sudanese authorities in Khartoum have been stepping up their harassment of Sudanese journalists and newspapers," said Human Rights Watch Africa director Peter Takirambudde.
"The harassment is symptomatic of Khartoum's fear of mounting popular dissent and frustration at government policies and actions."
The Khartoum government is also challenged for ordering security forces to censor and arrest journalists as well as carrying out arbitrary inspections of newspaper offices and printing presses.
Sudan's intolerance to the dissenting voices is evidenced by its arrest and of 15 journalists - local and foreign - since the beginning of the year. It has also resumed the practice of pre-print inspections of newspapers in an apparent effort to censor sensitive news and newspaper editions risk being banned altogether.
Human Rights Watch is also annoyed with the Sudanese government for warning newspaper editors not to cover the violent police actions against anti-government demonstrations against price hikes for fuel, sugar and other basic commodities on 30 August and 6 September.
Sudan's attempts to bury the Darfur story are also clear, as its security forces have routinely restricted the international and Sudanese media to coverage the conflict and humanitarian crisis. Even once they have obtained visas for Sudan, international media face increasing restrictions on their travel to Darfur and their ability to move freely and interview individuals in the region, Human Rights Watch said.
"The government's strategy of intimidating journalists in Khartoum has had some effect," said Mr Takirambudde. "The Sudanese media, especially Arabic newspapers, toe the government line on key issues such as Darfur. And the human rights violations being carried out by the security forces in the region are not being reported."
The organisation also views this harassment of the press as undermining the North-South peace deal. Khartoum signed a comprehensive peace agreement with rebels in January 2005, thus putting an end to the 21-year civil war in its south. This also followed the formation of a government of national unity and the establishment of an autonomous government of South Sudan.
Having signed the peace deal, Khartoum lifted a long-running state of emergency in some parts of southern Sudan. As a result of the peace, the national interim constitution established in 2005 guarantees freedom of the press.
Mr Takirambudde believes the peace agreement signing will lead to elections in 2008 throughout Sudan, which are crucial in putting the whole of Sudan on the path to sustainable peace. "But the current limitations on free expression and harassment of journalists show just how far there is to go to create a political environment conducive to free and fair elections."
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