, KHARTOUM, May 30 – When Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir called the government of South Sudan an “insect” that must be eliminated, veteran journalist and analyst Faisal Mohammed Salih was asked for comment.
He told the Al-Jazeera satellite channel that Bashir’s remarks were inappropriate. Because of that, he says he was unofficially detained by state security agents for almost two weeks before being charged criminally.
“I was punished for my opinion,” he says.
Journalists and press freedom advocates say his case is symptomatic of a worsening government attack against critical voices over the past year, as tensions with South Sudan escalated following the South’s separation last July.
“The situation now is very sensitive, after the troubles of Heglig, the troubles with the South,” said Osman Mirghani, editor in chief of the independent daily newspaper Al Tayar.
Sudan and South Sudan came to the brink of all-out war in April as the South seized Sudan’s main oil field of Heglig for 10 days and the north launched air strikes over the border.
For the first time since that fighting, the two sides resumed negotiations on Tuesday.
“My case is one case. There are many other cases showing that the so-called margins of freedom are narrowing,” Salih, 52, said in an interview with AFP.
He and other press freedom advocates say journalists have been banned from writing, newspapers have been confiscated after printing, and some have been ordered to suspend publication.
“So I think it is the worst situation we find ourselves in, in the last 10 years maybe,” said Salih, a political columnist, journalism teacher, and director of programmes for Teeba Press, a media training agency which also advocates for freedom of expression.
The Sudanese Journalists Union, representing almost 5,000 journalists, agreed the climate is worsening.
“This is related to the war between north and South,” said Mekki Elmograbi, the union’s press freedom and human rights secretary.
Salih says the crackdown is the government’s response to a political, economic and security crisis facing the country.
“When people are in failure they try to find scapegoats,” he said. “They don’t want to listen to any criticism.”
In its annual report on human rights and democracy around the world, Sudan’s former ruler Britain said in April it had seen “worrying evidence of reduced freedom of expression” in Sudan.
— The president is ‘untouchable’ —
Salih is already on trial, due to return to court on June 11 in a case stemming from a column he wrote early last year. He called for a “serious investigation” into a female activist’s allegation that she was raped in custody.
“The security (service) sued me for defamation,” he said, adding that two female journalists were briefly jailed and fined for similar writings, while two others are still on trial along with him.
His latest legal trouble followed the commentary he gave on Bashir’s “insect” speech at the height of the Heglig crisis.
“What I have said is… this is not sensible and not acceptable from presidents or from leaders,” he said. “Leaders should be wise in their speech… not to be taken by emotions and say anything.”
A few days later state security officers detained him and accused him of insulting the president, he said. They let him go that night but told him to report again the next day.
“They just asked me to sit in a chair until evening, without saying anything or talking to me, even no ‘good morning’ or ‘good evening’,” he said.
After 10 days of that, Salih refused to go voluntarily, forcing the officers to pick him up for three more days of the same silent treatment.
“What they are doing is that they are detaining me without officially declaring that I’m detained,” he said.
With no legal basis to lay a formal complaint over his comments, they charged him with a minor offence and brought him before a judge over his refusal to report to their office, he said, after his release on bail.
“I didn’t violate any law,” but could face a month’s jail and a fine if convicted, Salih said. “They think it is a crime to criticise the president.”
He alleged the officers were acting on high-level instructions.
“The constant harassment to which he has been subjected is further proof of the repressive attitude towards the press on the part of the Khartoum government, whose intention is to silence all dissident voices,” the Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said.
Mirghani, of Al Tayar, said journalists have been told the president is “untouchable” as a subject.
His newspaper was suspended from publishing for more than two weeks earlier this year after it ran an article about Bashir’s family.
“Our paper is in a very sensitive position now,” he said.