Sudanese security forces halted a protest by journalists demanding freedom of the press in central Khartoum Sunday over authorities last week shutting down the office of Qatar state broadcaster Al Jazeera. Just hours later, troops moved-in to clear a weeks-long sit-in of protesters demanding the military hand power to a civilian authority, leaving at least nine people dead.
Just seconds after Sudanese journalists unfurled banners for freedom of the press Sunday, a pickup truck of troops with a mounted machine gun arrived to shut down the protest.
Despite the rally taking place on a public street, an officer with the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) said the area was a military zone and that filming was prohibited.
The officer threatened to arrest the journalists if they did not leave the area and singled out a foreign reporter who was covering the rally as one who would be placed in handcuffs.
Shamaya Al Noor, a columnist for Al Tayar Newspaper, said it was impossible to convince the RSF to allow the protest.
With the RSF, she said, there’s no negotiations, there’s no common language with these forces. If you try and speak to them, they won’t understand, said Noor. So, wisdom dictates that you just leave the place, she said, because they might just attack you immediately.
Noor said the RSF, which has been accused of leading attacks on protesters, and are showing that they are the ones in control of Khartoum.
Even the way their soldiers speak, they’re trying to tell us that they’re in control, she said. They will [do the] banning of things, [they will] give permissions, said Noor. Basically, they’re trying to say, ‘we are the government.’
The RSF’s actions, said Noor, remind her of the way former President Omar al-Bashir ran things – by force.
The military ousted Bashir in April but has been beset since by thousands of protesters at a massive sit-in demanding they hand power to civilians.
After the Rapid Support Forces stopped their protest Sunday, the journalists moved it behind the sit-in’s makeshift barricades, where the RSF has not been allowed to enter.
The Sudanese Journalists Network’s Adil Ibrahim said they organized the protest in response to the military last week ordering the closing of Qatari state broadcaster Al Jazeera’s Khartoum office without a stated reason.
“The last three weeks in Khartoum dropped down in the freedom of speech and journalist right(s) … We think it is a crime against their rights to work, their rights of freedom of speech, it is a very very bad decision … We think right of speech is not covering just the journalists. It’s the democracy of the people of the republic.”
The Sudanese Journalists Network is part of an alliance of professional organizations that has led the demonstrations since April against military rule.
Ibrahim said that in the last three weeks Sudanese radio stations and newspapers have been censored on certain topics such as corruption and the Transitional Military Council that replaced Bashir.
He said the media clampdown appeared to be a prelude to the RSF’s violent attacks on the sit-in as talks between the military and protest leaders have stalled.
The military on Thursday declared the protest in central Khartoum a threat to public safety and early Monday morning the RSF raided the protest site, with many casualties reported.
With violence increasing, and freedom of the press under attack, many Sudanese fear what few freedoms they have gained from their revolution are at risk of slipping away.