Social media aids Sudan opposition to spread protests

The protests have evolved into deadly confrontations between demonstrators and security forces, and triggered calls for the downfall of the country’s veteran ruler. (File/AFP)
Updated 17 January 2019
0

Social media aids Sudan opposition to spread protests

  • Activists have actively documented the confrontations and flooded social media with footage which they claim is “exposing” Bashir’s government
  • Other hashtags such as #SudanRevolts and #SudanUprising have also helped build momentum, amassing hundreds of tweets and retweets by the hour

CAIRO: Despite a long-standing crackdown on dissent in Sudan, opponents of President Omar Al-Bashir have found a voice online, using social media to fuel nationwide protests and share images of security forces using violence to suppress them.
The protests in Sudan began peacefully on December 19 to demonstrate against the tripling of the price of bread.
But they have evolved into deadly confrontations between demonstrators and security forces, and triggered calls for the downfall of the country’s veteran ruler.
“Social media is crucial for the movement,” said one 24-year-old activist, speaking with AFP in Cairo over WhatsApp. AFP has withheld his name for safety reasons.
For the past four weeks, activists have actively documented the confrontations and flooded social media with footage which they claim is “exposing” Bashir’s government.
The main cities of the northeast African nation, including the capital Khartoum and its twin city Omdurman, have all been rocked by what is now widely seen as the biggest threat to Bashir in his three decades of iron-fisted rule.
The 24-year-old protester said he only finds out about demonstrations through online announcements and maintained that anger at the “horrible” videos of deadly confrontations was driving more people out onto the streets.
One video purportedly showed a security vehicle chasing protesters to run them over, while gunshots were heard in the background.
Another clip showed people rushing to try to remove the blood-covered body of a protester hit by gunfire. Both have been viewed hundreds of times online.
Authorities say at least 24 people have died in the clashes, but rights groups including Amnesty International have put the death toll at 40 and say more than 1,000 people have been arrested.
On Friday during prayers at a mosque, irate crowds appeared in a video calling on an imam to lead protests against Bashir.
None of the footage could be independently verified by AFP.
Users have also shared multiple images of what appears to be security personnel beating up protesters with batons.
“We are people who don’t accept injustice. And what happened to protesters, whether it was tear gas or live bullets fired at them, is clear injustice,” said another social media activist based in Khartoum, who also spoke to AFP in Cairo and declined to be named fearing reprisals.
“Protests where violations occur are usually followed by larger ones,” the 25-year-old added.
The demonstrations have been spearheaded by the Sudanese Professionals’ Association (SPA) which regularly issues online announcements of upcoming rallies, with the hashtags #Sudan_cities_uprise or #Just_Fall.
Other hashtags such as #SudanRevolts and #SudanUprising have also helped build momentum, amassing hundreds of tweets and retweets by the hour.
Thanks to social media “the uprisings in the regional cities have been noticed a lot more quickly,” said Willow Berridge, a lecturer at Newcastle University in northern England.
And that “has had an impact on what is happening in Khartoum a lot more quickly because of the changing nature of technology and social media.”
With the protests showing no signs of abating, the Sudanese government has sought to curtail the use of social networks, activists and analysts said.
Internet users have reported difficulties accessing platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp since the early days of the protests.
It is not an unusual tactic by autocratic governments.
In the turbulent days of Egypt’s 2011 uprising against long-serving ruler Hosni Mubarak, the government blocked communications and cut off nearly all Internet traffic.
Such experiences prompted Sudanese activists to immediately look for alternatives for online access, including the use of virtual private network (VPN) services to bypass controls.
“Shutting down access to online platforms has proved a farce,” said Magdi El Gizouli, a Sudan analyst with the Rift Valley Institute.
“Almost immediately, the bulk of Sudanese Internet users were online through VPN,” he added.
And activists saw the Sudanese government’s heavy-handed move as virtually ineffective.
“It gave people an indication that the government is scared,” said the 25-year-old activist.
“This only strengthened the spirit of revolt in people, as it showed that we are on the right track.”
The 24-year-old also believes the restrictions on online media are “pointless” and have “little to no impact over the demonstrations.”
The government has in past years already moved to curtail online and print media.
And Sudan already has ranked 174 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom index for consecutive years from 2015 to 2018.
In 2018, the country introduced a cybercrime law and amendments to the media law that rights groups see as aiming to tighten online restrictions.
According to a November report by the US-based think tank Freedom House, at least one person has been jailed “for critical commentary shared on social media” in Sudan, and authorities have arrested “numerous journalists and activists for alleged cybercrime.”
But Gizouli says the government’s attempts to crush online dissent have been “to no avail.”
“In many ways, these measures have only reinforced public anger at the government’s securitization of the Internet,” he said.


Afghans fear end of golden age of press freedom

Updated 21 May 2019
0

Afghans fear end of golden age of press freedom

  • A recent televised news debate highlights how far media freedom has come in Afghanistan
  • Journalists alike worry a potential peace deal between the Taliban and the US could sound the death knell for a golden age of press freedom

KABUL: Beneath the gaze of the TV cameras a woman begins speaking, at first softly but with growing passion as she faces the "Butcher of Kabul" across a crowded auditorium and asks if he wants to apologise for alleged war crimes.
Without missing a beat, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the ruthless former warlord blamed for rocket attacks which reduced much of the Afghan capital to rubble in the 1990s, declined to do so.
The dramatic moment during a recent televised news debate highlights how far media freedom has come in Afghanistan, where -- for now -- traumatised civilians can stand and at least try to hold powerful men to account, live on camera.
"Years ago, these kind of questions could get you killed, but now people can challenge the most dangerous people in mainstream and social media," Mustafa Rahimi, a university student, said after watching the debate.
But today, even as hundreds of media outlets proliferate across Afghanistan, consumers and journalists alike worry a potential peace deal between the Taliban and the US could sound the death knell for a golden age of press freedom.
"We are concerned about a total or a partial ban on media," Sediqullah Khaliq, the director of Hewad TV and radio in Kandahar -- the birthplace of Taliban -- told AFP.
"There is fear that we may go back to a media blackout or having a state-controlled press."
While in power, the Taliban raged against traditional forms of mass communication and entertainment, banning television, movies and allowing only Islamist programming or propaganda to be broadcast on the only radio station, Voice of Sharia.
Anyone caught watching TV faced punishment and risked having their television set smashed and then displayed from a lamppost.
Almost all electronic products were outlawed as un-Islamic. For a while, trees in Kabul fluttered with the magnetic ribbon tape from destroyed cassettes.
Photographs of living things were illegal, and ownership of a video player could lead to a public lashing.
Afghanistan is the world's deadliest place for journalists, who face many risks covering the conflict and who have sometimes been targeted for doing their job.
Nine journalists, including AFP Kabul's chief photographer Shah Marai, were killed in an Islamic State attack in April 2018.
Media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that 2018 was the deadliest year on record for journalists in Afghanistan, with at least 15 media workers killed while working.
Despite the risks, hundreds of media organisations have blossomed since 2001, and today there are more than 100 television channels, 284 radio stations and just over 400 newspapers and magazines, according to a government report.
With one of the world's lowest literacy rates, television and radio play a huge role in Afghan culture, and Afghans have grown accustomed to outlets holding their politicians to account.
Warlords, politicians, Taliban sympathisers and government officials are openly challenged in televised debates, radio programmes and on social media.
"We now play live music, women call in and share their problems on the radio. But even if the Taliban allow radios, I don't think they would like our programmes," said Mera Hamdam, a presenter at Zama private radio in Kandahar.
"There is huge concern that we will lose all our achievements," he said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said if they return to power, the insurgents would follow an Islamic interpretation of freedom of expression.
"We won't allow propaganda, insults and humiliation to people in society and religious values. We will allow those who work for the betterment of the society," he told AFP.
A sixth round of talks between the US and the Taliban wrapped up last week in Doha, with apparently little progress being made on several key issues.
The two foes have for months been trying to hammer out a deal that could see foreign forces leave Afghanistan in return for a ceasefire, talks between Kabul and the Taliban, and a guarantee the country will not be used as a safe haven for terror groups.
But observers worry that in a rush to quit Afghanistan after nearly 18 gruelling years of war, America might not push for safeguards of protections many Afghans now take for granted, including media freedoms and improved rights for women and other marginalised people.
"Freedom of expression as a protective value should be incorporated into any document resulting from peace talks," NAI, a leading media support agency, said in a statement.
Rahimi, the university student, said he worried about Afghanistan going back to "the dark era".