Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sudan expels reporter investigating arms industry

The expulsion of a Canadian journalist from Sudan has brought new attention to Khartoum's uneasy relationship with the news media.

Sudan is a relatively free country – with a vibrant independent media, where other African countries have only state-owned newspapers – but it maintains firm control over local and foreign news organizations through censorship on issues deemed sensitive by the government. In the case of Heba Aly, a Canadian journalist with Egyptian nationality as well, Sudan says it expelled her because of immigration issues, not because of her reporting.

Yet Ms. Aly says it was her investigating of Sudan's arms manufacturing industry that prompted agents from Sudan's national security agency to call her in for a hastily convened meeting this past weekend at a restaurant in Sudan's capital.

It is sensitive issues like the military that have led Sudan to impose censorship rules on its independent newspapers, jail protesting reporters, and to arrest an opposition leader for suggesting that Mr. Bashir should face trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.

"It is pretty paradoxical, because Sudan is a country that does well in press freedoms compared with other African countries," says Ambroise Pierre, Africa desk officer for Reporters Without Borders in Paris. "But the whole climate within the country is one of censorship and self-censorship, where there are many subjects that just cannot be investigated."

Although he admits that any government has the right to decide who enters its borders, and who has the right to work inside its territory, Mr. Pierre says that Sudan makes it very difficult for journalists to play by the rules, to get accreditation, and to obtain work authorization.

"For the last six months, Heba Aly has been fighting to get accredited as a journalist, and she never succeeded," he says. "It's pretty difficult when you are like Heba Aly, trying to do your best as an honest journalist, you are like a hostage of the administration. The government can control who can work, where people can work, and what they can write."

Aly, a freelance reporter who writes for several news organizations including the Monitor and Bloomberg News, says she had been told by a Sudanese official at the time of her arrival that, as an Egyptian passport holder, she could live in Sudan without a residence permit. She says that she maintained her status as a member of the press – with a press card from the Sudanese Ministry of Information – throughout the bulk of her stay in Sudan, but despite months of waiting, she never received a work permit or accreditation as a foreign correspondent residing in Sudan.

While she admits that she worked for her final month, January, without accreditation, she says it was only after she started pursuing a story about Sudan's arms-manufacturing industry that she received a call from National Security agents requesting a meeting. At the meeting, the agents told her that she must leave Sudan by Monday.

"I was never given any written expulsion order, despite my repeated requests," says Aly, who had been detained twice before during her year in Sudan. "I was simply harassed, and was counselled by someone in government that if I did not leave I would be arrested. I was followed, intimidated into leaving the country, and escorted by national security all the way onto the tarmac to board the airplane. The reason they gave me was that I was asking about arms. But they told me the line they would use publicly was that I didn't have my work papers."

Heba Aly works with the Puliter Center.  Her profile and links to some of her articles are available at their website here.  Her report for the radio program PRI's The World is available here.

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