The Sudan conflict has become a 'death wish' for journalists

Sudan journalists [AFP]
6 min read
26 March, 2024

It was Fa'ez Abu Bakr's sense of duty that drove him to document military checkpoints in Sudan's war-stricken capital, Khartoum. Yet, for all his resolve, standing a few feet away from a checkpoint, Fa'ez still hoped for the best. 

"Rapid Support Forces (RSF) soldiers opened fire without warning. I was shot in the back before I could escape," the video journalist told The New Arab. "I was detained on charges of treason in June 2023 in a makeshift detention centre where I was tortured, beaten with clubs, and hosed down for two days before I was released."

Since the outbreak of hostilities between the paramilitary RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) in April 2023, journalists have suffered escalating violations at the hands of both factions. Covering the conflict has now become a death wish. 

"It is obvious that both [the RSF and the SAF] show little concern for the freedom of the press and the lives of journalists documenting the civil war"

Fa'ez is among more than 249 Sudanese journalists who were documented victims of threats, torture, or death in the wake of the conflict, as per the Sudanese Journalists Syndicate (SJS).

“I left Sudan in December after the RSF took hold of Al-Jazirah state,” Fa'ez tells The New Arab. “I couldn’t feel secure after what happened, and so I packed my belongings and sought refuge in Kenya with the hope of returning one day to a Sudan that is safe and prosperous.”

Journalists in Sudan are caught in the crossfire

According to Fa'ez, neither side of the conflict acknowledges the notion of independent journalism, often levelling accusations against those who practice it, which puts the lives of journalists covering the war and its harrowing aftermath in grave danger.

“It is obvious that both [the RSF and the SAF] show little concern for the freedom of the press and the lives of journalists documenting the civil war,” Secretary of the SJS, Mohammed Abdulaziz, says. “The syndicate is applying pressure on both sides to respect these fundamental rights.”

According to Mohammed, SJS data revealed a surge in infractions against journalists in Khartoum and Darfur, where hundreds faced various injustices ranging from unlawful arrests to murder. The systemic targeting has forced the majority of media institutions to cease operations, leaving 90 percent of Sudanese journalists with unpaid dues and no viable source of income.

South Sudan journalist killed AFP
249 Sudanese journalists have been victims of threats, torture, or death since the conflict began [Getty Images]

Fa'ez describes the financial situation of most journalists as precarious, with many having lost essential equipment such as cameras, microphones, and laptops.

“Since the start of the war, not a single institution has provided journalists with protective equipment such as bulletproof vests and helmets,” Mostafa Saeed, a photojournalist in Omudurman, one of the capital’s most populous cities, tells The New Arab. “We are also not receiving any financial compensation for the work we do.”

After an artillery shell reduced his family home to rubble, Mostafa had to leave Omudurman in Khartoum for the relatively safer Port Sudan in the Red Sea state.

“Working as a journalist in Omudurman was dangerous. There is no protection from either warring faction, and reporters are often accused with grave charges such as espionage, which carry penalties ranging from imprisonment to execution,” Mostafa explains. “The disruption of communications and the internet has also left us incapable of carrying out our daily duties."

In February, internet observatory Netblocks reported that all three of Sudan’s main internet providers went offline, severing communication for millions of Sudanese trapped in war zones or seeking refuge for their safety.

"At the start of the conflict, we worked with regional and international partners to evacuate journalists trapped in dangerous conflict areas,” Mohammed recounts, “but the communications blackout has posed a significant challenge to these efforts.”

The SJS released the first annual report on press freedom state in Sudan in September 2023, documenting violations against journalists and media institutions. Mohammed stated that the syndicate will continue to monitor and track crimes committed against journalists to ensure their safety and security, but journalists told The New Arab that they fail to see tangible results.

“Sure, the SJS issues statements of condemnation, but there’s nothing more to it. We are left stranded with no legal or financial support,” Fa'ez says.

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One photographer, who wished to remain anonymous, told The New Arab that many in his professional circle refrained from identifying as journalists at RSF or SAF checkpoints out of fear for their lives, describing how carrying the SJS membership card can cost a journalist their life.

Female journalists are under attack

In August 2023, the joint statement Sudanese Media: Four Months of Violations from several media organisations in Sudan warned against increased violence against female journalists, who are especially “vulnerable to gender-based violence,” which exacerbates the gender disparities already prevalent within Sudanese society.

RSF soldiers threatened and harassed Nadine Al-Sirr, a journalist from Omdurman, because of her work and gender, but out of love for her hometown, she decided to stay despite the odds and help her community heal during this difficult time. 

“I have a chronic heart condition, which made me suffer even more,” Nadine tells The New Arab. “At one point, I just couldn’t bear the physical and psychological stress anymore. I had to leave.”

Nadine left for the city of Shendi, in northern Sudan. However, upon arrival, she was faced with more harassment and tight surveillance by the SAF. Her profession made her a suspect, and authorities were quick to deem her a traitor spying for the RSF. With her movement severely restricted and her life endangered, Nadine left Sudan for Uganda in August 2023.

While investigating the conditions of displaced women in a government-run shelter, a photojournalist, who wished to remain anonymous, found herself unexpectedly detained and interrogated by state security officers, despite prior approval from shelter management. She believes that the situation escalated because she was a woman.

"The SAF officers deleted the recordings but didn't take any further action because I had shown cooperation. I was fortunate because I was only recording audio and didn’t bring my camera," she says. 

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Nadine recounts how she stopped covering any war-related stories out of fear for her life, but she struggled to believe how even a humanitarian piece on victims of the war nearly got her arrested.

“There are countless incursions that need to be reported, but because we’re trapped here within Sudan, we can’t do anything about it,” she states. “Perhaps those who have managed to escape can tell you all about it, but for those of us here, fear has muffled our voices.”

This article has been published in collaboration with Egab.

Faris Alsheghail is a freelance Sudanese journalist and photographer based in Khartoum

Follow him on X/Twitter: @faris_alshegail