The media landscape in Sudan has been developed and re-shaped by the political arena since the country’s independence in 1956. Historically, the country has had only two democratic governments since its independence and both elected governments were quickly overthrown by the military. The military rulers of the past have been swift to crack down on the freedom of expression and the current military regime continues to impose the same tactics of control and censorship. The ultimate goal for the government is a one-party state and one media voice to communicate with the public.
A free media remains elusive and represents a big challenge as the country continued to have a poor ranking score in the International Media Report by Freedom House in 2017. The political control of the media has been introduced through legislation and practice by the highest security institution in the country, the National Intelligence Security Service (NISS). Although the press and media laws must be passed by the parliament, the current regime issues bills that do not need any approval from MPs or any other institution. More recently, in November 2017, Sudanese journalists protested against a tentative law that had been drafted, allowing the government to confiscate and close down newspapers, terminate a journalist’s license to practice and other restrictive measures to control the exercise of freedom. The protesters succeed in postponing the work on the draft, however, the discussion is continuing behind closed doors.
One of the strategies employed by the government is to silence all the voices except its own and to force the opposition parties to spend exorbitant resources to operate their media outlets. Although there are more than eight opposition political parties, at present none of them have official television or radio channels. Some of the parties manage to own newspapers such as the Umma National Party and the Communist Party, but regular confiscation, economic sanctions and the arrest of journalists are leading those parties to close their newspapers. At present, only the Communist Party’s newspaper Almidan manages to reflect its party’s views, but the regular targeting by the government has affected the paper’s circulation and it appears that its closure is imminent.
Social media is, however, growing as independent platform attracting large audiences in Sudan, especially among the younger generation. The online platforms benefit from the freedom found in the Internet and more activists, politicians and journalists are using this space to express their views. A recent debate about the new press law showed that the regime apparently wishes to restrict online contents and hold journalists accountable for their contributions to any social media which criticizes or targets the government. Other risk factors include telecommunication companies that are owned by the regime supporters or business people who will embrace and support local regulations to avoid financial loss.
To reduce tension and to silence the calls for a free press and media, the regime plans to control the economic resources and gain ownership of most of the media outlets, especially television and radio. Although the National Television and Radio Corporation (NTRC) is considered a public broadcasting organisation, the regime has total control of content, budget and editorial views of both institutions at the NTRC. Moreover, since the regime supporters own other private radio and television outlets, this facilitates the ruling party’s control over the production and recruitment of the staff working in the media ensuring a message and a voice for its policies. The NTRC has benefited from the state’s resources and support as 18 administrative regions have local radios and televisions in addition to some broadcasting houses which were allocated for the regions.
These institutions, however, would be prone to high risk during times of instability as the opposition would target them in the process of gaining control and changing the regime in the country. Finally, the overall restrictive policies of the regime continue to crackdown on all media outlets having a negative impact on the freedom of the press, limiting competition in the marketplace and increasing the need for new platforms. The media market in Sudan is very weak and the restrictive environment limits the competition between different media outlets. The government's surveillance policies and regular confiscations have negatively impacted the circulations market. The absence of democracy and the one-party system affect the freedom of both political parties and media professionals. Although the government controls both television and radio, the investment in the media sector is very limited and the training for staff is not sufficient. A recent project funded by the British Council assessed the media participant’s capacity and recommended more training for the media outlets. The current NTRC has been in the same building with no major development for more than 50 years. The monopoly and the control of other media outlets impacts the production and performance of journalists. A journalist does not need to have high qualifications to join the government-controlled media such as the National Radio and Television, as an affiliation with the ruling party is more important. At the same time, a qualified journalist has limited career aspirations in the press sector as there are no guarantees about the future of the newspaper which may be confiscated or closed without notice. The print media focuses on survival more than staff development and as a result many qualified Sudanese journalists are leaving the country to work for media companies in the Gulf. The restrictive media environment silences voices, hinders professional development and limits the creativity of journalists.