As the international community commemorates World Press Day, the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS) expresses concern over the targeting of Sudanese citizens by the authorities for their online activity. ACJPS has documented four incidents where four Sudanese citizens have been charged with defamation under the Cybercrimes Act, 2007 and Criminal Act, 1991 as well as breach of public order and morality under the Cybercrimes Act following statements shared via social media platforms.
Over the years, social media platforms have been increasingly used by Sudanese citizens to voice concerns over the governance of their country, among others. Given the restrictive space, the online platforms are seen as a medium to freely express concerns and commentary on different issues affecting the ordinary citizen. Sudanese activists have also relied on social media to run different campaigns including the2016 civil disobedience campaign against anti-austerity measures. Various media houses in Sudan have also launched online news sites that have made it possible to publish articles on topics that might have otherwise been deemed red line topics and exposed them to pre-print or post print censorship and other restrictive tactics used by the authorities. However the Government has extended its repressive tactics and carried out arrests and interrogation of individuals for their online activity and relied on crimes under the Cybercrimes Act to charge individuals for their social media activity.
ACJPS urges the Sudanese authorities to respect and guarantee the right to freedom of expression as provided forin article 39 of the Interim National Constitution of 2005 and international and regional human rights treaties that Sudan is a state party to.ACJPS further urges the Government to ensure that this freedom is protected both online and off-line in accordance with the constitution and universally accepted standards. The Government should further instruct its law enforcement agencies to cease harassment and intimidation of individuals exercising their rights legitimately.
ACJPS also calls for the decriminalization of defamation and proposed law reform within the country to adhere to regional and international standards to which Sudan has committed, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In its Resolution on the Adoption of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights urged states to ensure their defamation laws conform to certain standards including that, no one shall be found liable for true statements, opinions or statements regarding public figures which it was reasonable to make in the circumstances; public figures shall be required to tolerate a greater degree of criticism; and, sanctions shall never be so severe as to inhibit the right to freedom of expression.rdquo; In its General Comment 34 on freedoms of opinion and expression, the UN Human Rights Committee called on states to consider the decriminalization of defamation and held that the application of the criminal law should only be countenanced in the most serious of cases and imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty.rdquo;
Individuals charged for social media activity
On 15 April 2018, the Office of the Prosecutor in charge of cybercrimes charged Dr. Esmatt Mahmoud, a Professor of Philosophy at the Faculty of Art at the University of Khartoum, with article 17 of the Cybercrimes Act, 2007, after the University filed a complaint with the Prosecutor’s office. Dr. Mahmoud was arrested by the Police from the University on 15 April and taken to the Office of the Prosecutor where he was interrogated about aFacebook postpublished on 14 April 2018 that raised concern over the Director of the University paying close attention to staff’s behavior and how any slight mistake could lead to their files being taken to the Director’s office as opposed to the Human Resource Department. This has been viewed as a form of repression of the University staff.
On 12 April 2018 at 5 PM, a group of police officers dressed in uniform and NISS officers dressed in plain clothes arrested Mr. Muhsin Musa from his home in Hajar Anaar neighborhood of Kadugli in South Kordofan. He was then taken to the police station and charged with defamation under article 159 of the Criminal Act, 1991 and article 17 of Cybercrimes Act, 2007 following a complaint filed by Mr. Eisa Abakar, the Governor of South Kordofan.
Mr. Muhsin had previously voiced concerns over the lack of water, electricity, fuel services and increase of prices of basic commodities in South Kordofan on his Twitter account. He had also tweeted about the corruption in South Kordofan and mentioned that Mr. Abakar was privately benefiting from the gold mining in the state. The police interrogated him about his social media activity. Mr. Muhsin is still being detained by the police in Kadguli.
On 21 April 2018, the police of Khartoum Bahri arrested Ms. Awadia Mursal Abdulrahman and added her as a co-accused to the case against Mr. Muhsin. She is accused of using her Facebook account to share similar information published by Mr. Muhsin as well as making comments about Mr. Abakar’s commercial dealings. Ms. Mursal was later transferred to police custody in Kadugli in South Kordofan where the original case was filed.
On 4 April 2018, Ms. Saad Ahmed Fadul was brought before the Office of the Prosecutor in charge of cybercrimes in Khartoum and charged with articles: 10 (crimes against property, data and communications by threats or blackmail), 14 (breach of public order and morality) and 16 (violation of religious beliefs or the sanctity of private life) of the Cybercrimes Act, 2007 after she shared a video via WhatsApp narrating a story of how she was dismissed from the Sudan Communication Company and replaced with Hind Abdalla Hassan Albashir, a niece to Sudan’s President, Al Bashir.
The Government of Sudan has relied on restrictive laws to control press freedom as well as online activity. The Cybercrimes Act, 2007 criminalizes, among others, defamation, breach of public order and morality, which attract a prison sentence, fine or both. The Act however does not specify what would constitute defamation or breach of public order and morality.
In July 2017,Mr. Izzeldien Dahab, a journalist with Algareeda newspaper, was charged with article 17 (defamation) of the Cybercrimes Act, 2007in connection with an article published in Algareeda newspaper on 10 April 2017 about corruption in the Ministry of Finance in South Darfur.
On 24 July 2017, during a Government organized workshop, an information security expert emphasized importance of putting in place restrictive legislation aimed at combatting cybercrimes. The expert made reference to an increase in information related crimes citing statistics from the police showing an increase in cases from 72 cases in 2013 to 122 cases in 2014. He added that in 2015 the reported cases reached 462. He also pointed out the number of complaints on defamation via Facebook increased from 2016.
At the same workshop, Mr Mohamed Abdel-Rahim Yassin, the Director of the National Information Centre stated that the Cabinet Ministers had approved a new law on cybercrimes that was tabled before the Sudanese Parliament for approval. He also added that if adopted, the law would make Sudan one of the leading countries in combating cybercrimes. He mentioned that a team of experts were working hard to put in place strategies on how to deal with the information related crimes.
The Government’s efforts to combat information related crimes have however been viewed as attempts to extend restrictions to online content with an aim of further suppressing dissenting voices.
Source: African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS)