Global media miss the point over Sudan protests
by Abdallah Schleifer
Media coverage of the demonstrations in Sudan has been scant here in Cairo as well as in the West. I know all my Egyptian colleagues are only paying strict attention to fast moving events in Egypt, and after that the drama playing out in Syria.
In Sudan itself the media situation is impossible. Several of the serious newspapers in the country have either voluntarily closed or been forcibly shut down because they will not follow the directive to report only what the government says about the demonstrations.
Internet connections in Sudan were cut off when the demonstrations gathered momentum and have only been restored on an intermittent basis. But still photos and video have been getting out via social media. These include footage of the Minister of Interior’s press conference last weekend, where the minister claimed that the photographs of demonstrators being shot by security forces or by ruling party militia were fakes. At that point a Sudanese journalist asked the minister why he keeps on lying. Reuters reported the story on Monday and the video of that exchange was published on YouTube.
I tried to find out more by calling Abdel-Rahman El-Mahdi in Khartoum. El-Mahdi is a coordinator for the NGOs that manage to operate in Sudan, and is not partisan for any party. When he answered the phone he was standing in the street just outside of a police station, where his wife Dalia Rubi – an activist - was being held. Earlier in the evening the police had come to their home and arrested her; he isn’t allowed into the station and has no idea how long they will hold her.
I asked him what had happened to the Sudanese journalist who had challenged the Minister. He said the journalist was arrested, beaten up and then released – but state security went to his newspaper where they are supervising the coverage, as is happening at other newspapers that still appear.
Many Sudanese have been relying on pan-Arab satellite television news, but both Al Arabiya and Sky News Arabia have had their Khartoum bureaus closed down since last Friday, and the several other Sudanese I have managed to get through to, all consider Al Jazeera Arabic to be siding with the government.
But Al Jazeera’s English channel has in a cautious way, avoided partisanship. An indication of that cautiousness was an extended interview with an opponent of the government for the AJE News Hour. Yet this was with a Sudanese intellectual working in a think-tank in Germany, and conducted via satellite from Doha. It was not an interview with any of the opposition leaders in Khartoum, who could have been taped as part of a field report and would have spoken dramatically as eyewitnesses, and not in the more abstract manner of someone thousands of miles away from the action.
Papers like the New York Times, the Guardian and The Telegraph are mainly using news agency copy in their reports on Sudan. Presumably they cannot get their own journalists into the country, or perhaps as a story it is simply overshadowed by the fighting in Syria, the sudden flurry of activity concerning Syria’s use and stockpile of poison gas, and the extraordinary performance of Iran’s President in New York this past week. But more likely it is because this is a news story that has been misunderstood.
Sudan vs. Egypt
Although these are the largest protest demonstrations ever staged against President Omar al-Bashir – who led a coup in 1989 that ended one of Sudan’s brief periods of democratic rule – the numbers (between 5,000 to 10,000 in Khartoum at any one time over the past week) do not seem significant to foreign media when compared to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
But Sudan is in the hands of an Islamist government that drastically purged the state administration, the army and the professions upon taking power in way unimaginable in the Egyptian or Tunisian dictatorships. The liberalization measures of the past decade have never altered the fundamentals of this regime which makes the defiant turn out in the streets so striking.
Global media does not grasp that. What makes this situation potentially perilous for al-Bashir is not only the relatively limited numbers of protestors. It is the fact that high-ranking members of his own ruling Islamist party – the National Congress – have openly signed a declaration, or spoken off record to foreign news agencies, condemning the violence deployed against the demonstrators and calling upon the President to rescind the ending of subsidized price of fuel which sparked the protests more than a week ago.
That suggests that if the situation continues to deteriorate, the ruling party and the army under its control might just depose al-Bashir, who is already an international liability, in a sort of “palace coup”. They could then restore the fuel subsidy, before the demonstrations get out of hand and turn into a fully-fledged uprising.
Cross published on Al Arabiya and reprinted on TAM with permission of the author. Prof. Schleifer’s Alarabiya column will now be posted regularly on The American Muslim (TAM), and on Arab Media and Society, an electronic journal as well as the links twitted on a weekly basis to Arab Media and Society subscribers.
Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya’s Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary “Control Room” and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza…and Jerusalem.”