According to Sudan’s constitution, freedom of the press is guaranteed. However, in practice, the right to report news without fear of government action seems fragile at best, and nonexistent at worst. Case in point: Fatima Ghazali, a journalist who was recently jailed for a month for writing articles about the alleged rape of Safiya Ishaq, a female activist who was arrested following an anti-government protest in February. The judge in Khartoum convicted Ghazali of publishing lies, and ordered her to pay a $600 fine or spend a month in prison. She chose to go to prison.
Five more people are set to be tried for writing about Ishaq, who claimed online in several videos that she was repeatedly raped by three security officers after she was arrested. Ishaq has since fled the country, but the journalists remain to face the consequences. Ghazali’s editor at the Sudanese daily Al-Jarida was also fined, and has yet to decide whether he wants to pay the fine or spend the requisite amount of time in jail.
The punishment meted out to Ghazali and her editor is not severe, but it’s troubling on a number of levels. First of all, although Ishaq’s rape had not been proven, the journalists had the right to write about her allegations. Certainly, until the case was proven, they were not “publishing lies.” Secondly, the nonprofit organization Reporters Without Borders claims that this is part of a pattern of harassing journalists for covering human rights violations.
In a piece last month, RWB condemned the “disgraceful way the authorities are harassing and prosecuting journalists in Khartoum and the north of the country in an attempt to silence them and stop embarrassing revelations about human rights violation by the security forces.”
It’s only a matter of days before South Sudan gains international recognition, as the elections last winter stipulated, and the interim constitution expires. While journalistic freedom may get better in South Sudan, many fear that North Sudan will crack down on freedom of the press in its attempts to enforce Sharia law. In other words, it’s hard to know what will happen to journalists after Saturday. Although Ghazali’s imprisonment is unjust, she may have escaped with a lenient punishment compared to could happen to journalists who are perceived to threaten the Sudanese government in the future.
Photo from cellopics via flickr