Freedom on the Internet in Sudan
Today’s release of the annual publication Freedom on the Net that includes, for the first time, a chapter on Sudan authored by GIRIFNA, is more than timely, as Sudan starts witnessing a new wave of widespread protests triggered by the Sudanese government’s announcement in late September 2013 that it will lift economic subsidies from fuel and other essential food items.
The Freedom on the Net 2013 report, which surveys 60 countries worldwide between May 2012 and April 2013, is the fourth edition of the series published by Freedom House.
Based on a survey of 60 countries in Freedom on the Net 2013, Sudan is categorized as “Not Free” with a score of 63, placing it among the bottom 14 countries in the “Not Free” category. As one of ten sub-Saharan African countries surveyed in the 2013 edition, Sudan joined Ethiopia as the two “Not Free” countries in the region, while two countries were categorized as “Free” (Kenya and South Africa), and six countries categorized as “Partly Free” (Angola, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe).
Sudan has invested heavily in its telecommunications infrastructure in the last decade, resulting in a steadily increasing internet penetration rate of 21 percent, a mobile penetration rate of 60 percent by the end of 2012, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), as well as the cheapest post-paid costs in the Middle East and North Africa in 2012, and healthy market competition amongst four telecommunications providers.
However, these infrastructural and economical advantages are highly reduced in the backdrop of a State that has little respect for freedom of expression, freedom of association, participation and peaceful assembly. The Sudanese regime is amongst the worst globally in terms its obstruction of the access to independent and diverse information both offline and online. A global study on press freedom conducted by Reporters without Borders earlier this year ranks Sudan at 170 out of 179 countries surveyed. This clearly shows that the violations of freedom of expression impacting the traditional print media are also starting to reflect online.
Since September 23, the Government of Sudan (GOS) has responded to the new wave of protests with unprecedented violence toward urban dwellers protesting peacefully. More than 200 have been killed in Khartoum and Wad Madani by live bullets shot by riot police, national security agents, and/or state sponsored militias. According to a government statement, 600 citizens have been detained, though activists say that number is much higher. On Wednesday, September 25, the GOS shut down Sudan’s access to the internet for 24 hours. When the internet returned, it was much slower, with Facebook inaccessible on mobile phones and YouTube blocked or non-functional due to a very slow broadband connection.
The wave of protests triggered by economic austerity plans that hit the country last year between June and July 2012–known as Sudan Revolts–was the that first time the Sudanese authorities implemented a large-scale crackdown and detentions of citizens and activists using digital platforms to communicate, connect, coordinate and mobilize. Additionally, the GOS increased its deployment of a Cyber Jihadist Unit to monitor and hack into Facebook and email accounts of activists. The National Telecommunications Corporation (a government agency) also engages in the censoring and blocking of opposition online news forums and outlets. YouTube, for example, was blocked for a two months in late 2012 in response to the “Innocence of Muslims” video. The Sudan chapter in Freedom on the Net 2013 focuses on these events in great detail, and covers the period between May 2012 and April 2013.
Arrests and harassment of citizen journalists
The attacks on cyber dissidents during Sudan Revolts included the detention of digital activists, such as Usamh Mohammed, for up to two months as well as the forced exile of Sudan’s most prominent video blogger, Nagla’a Sid Ahmad and the kidnapping and torture of the Darfurian online journalist Somia Hundosa. Moreover, one of the most high profile political detainees from the Nuba Mountains, Jalila Khamis, spent nine months in detention without charges; when she was finally brought to trial in December 2012, the main evidence against her was a YouTube video taken by Sid Ahmad, in which Khamis testified about the shelling of civilians in the Nuba Mountains by the GOS.
Sudan has a combination of restrictive laws that work together to impede freedom of expression both off and online, including the 2009 Printed Press Materials Law, and a new draft Media law that has recently appeared in Parliament, which officials have hinted would have, for the first time, language that restricts online content. Additionally, the National Security Act (2010) gives National Intelligence and Security Services the permission to arrest journalists and censor newspapers under the pretext of “national security,” while an IT Crime Law, in effect since 2007 criminalizes websites that criticize the government or publishes defamatory materials. All these law contradict Sudan’s National Interim Constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression, association and assembly.
The US sanctions imposed on Omer El Bashir’s regime since 1997 continue to hinder the free access to the internet and the free flow of information as it limits access to a number of new media tools. This incudes limited access to anti virus suites, e-document readers, and rich content multi-media applications that most Sudanese citizens cannot download. The inability to download software security updates makes many users in Sudan vulnerable to malware. Smart phone applications cannot be downloaded or purchased from the iTunes and/or Android stores.
A rigorous methodology
The country reports in the publications Freedom on the Net include both qualitative narrative reports and a quantitative methodology that primarily focuses on assessing: the degree of openness on the Internet, the ease of flow and access to information; as well as the degree in which users are protected from all sorts of persecution as the result of their online activities. The right to privacy is also emphasized, as well as the transmission of information through other digital means such as mobile phones and text messaging.
Freedom on the Net ranks 60 countries by measuring the “enabling environment” of internet freedom through 21 methodology questions that permit comparison across countries and allow analysis of emerging regional and global trends. The scores, which range from 0 (best) to 100 (worse), are based on three categories:
- Obstacles to barriers: this includes infrastructure, economic barriers, the regulatory environment, and attempts by the State to block access to specific technologies or applications;
- Limits on content: such as filtering and blocking websites; censorship or self-censorship, the diversity of online news and the level of digital activism for social and political purposes; and
- Violations of user rights: this includes any kind of persecution and harassment resulting from online activity, limitations on privacy and surveillance that infringes on privacy.
Based on scoring under the above three categories the “Internet Freedom Status” of each country is scored as “Free”: 0 to 30 points; “Partly Free”: 31 to 60; or “Not Free”: 61 to 100. In an attempt to further explain the methodology Freedom House adds that:
The index does not rate governments or government performance per se, but rather the real-world rights and freedoms enjoyed by individuals within each country. While digital media freedom may be primarily affected by state actions, pressures and attacks by non-state actors, including the criminal underworld, are also considered. Thus, the index ratings generally reflect the interplay of a variety of actors, both governmental and nongovernmental, including private corporations.