'They didn't say why:' Gov't phone calls shut down Sudan newspapers

Journalists angry about a Sudanese government crackdown on newspapers protest Tuesday outside the National Press Council.

Story highlights

  • Six newspapers ordered Monday and Tuesday to shut down
  • HRW: Sudan's rights record "abysmal"
  • Editor blames coverage of child molestation

(CNN)The daily meeting Monday at the Al-Khartoum newspaper had just broken up. It was about 1 p.m. People were on their way back to their desks.

Then the editor received a call. It was the government, according to Ibtisam Affan, co-publisher of the newspaper, saying the paper had to shut down. At once.
    "They didn't say why," Affan said. "They didn't give us any clue why they were doing this."
    But there no question of disobeying. Sudan, Affan said, is a police state. The newspaper's infrastructure could be confiscated. Those who fail to comply risk jail.

    Six papers ordered closed in two days

    If there is comfort in numbers, the journalists at Al-Khartoum have plenty of company.
    Journalists protest outside the National Press Council Tuesday against Sudan's recent crackdown on newspapers.
    On Sunday, the press runs of nine newspapers were confiscated, Affan said.
    Then on Monday, according to the group Journalists for Human Rights, four papers, including Al-Khartoum, were ordered to close for "unnamed reasons." And on Tuesday, the human rights group said, two more newspapers were ordered to shut their doors.
    Journalists demonstrated Tuesday in Khartoum against repression and in favor of press freedom.
    "The 'red lines' we have to stay away from are almost too many to count," a journalist working in Sudan told CNN. "Don't write about Darfur; don't write about inflation and the cost of living. Don't report on the opposition. You live in fear every day, that they will shut you down."
    The journalist asked not to be named for security reasons.
    The Sudanese government did not respond Tuesday to phone calls seeking comment.

    Reputation for repression

    Sudan, a northeast African country about one-fifth the size of the United States, has a reputation for repression. In February, two months before the national elections in April, authorities seized the print runs of 13 newspapers in a single day, according to Journalists for Human Rights.
    And in the balloting, which the opposition boycotted, President Omar al-Bashir won re-election, walking away with what the government said was more than 94% of the vote.
    Outside groups offer a grim assessment of the country's respect for freedom.
    "Sudan saw no progress in its abysmal rights record in 2014," the watchdog group Human Rights Watch reported this year. "Security forces repeatedly suppressed protesters demonstrating against government policies; and authorities continued to stifle civil society and independent media."

    A suspected motive

    While the government has offered no explanation for closing the newspapers, Affan thinks she knows the reason. Private schools owned by people close to the government have had numerous instances of sexual harassment and molestation -- sometimes, Affan said, involving children as young as 3, 4 or 5 years old.
    An NGO has been running workshops on how to prevent abuse. And newspapers, including Al-Khartoum, have written about the problem.
    "We started writing about this, and there are a lot of police cases," Affan said. "And apparently Mr. President didn't like this. He thought we were tarnishing the reputation of the Sudanese people."
    And when will Al-Khartoum be allowed to resume publishing?
    "No clue at all," Affan said. "We are waiting."