Salam wa marhab likum – I am Safira, the second tea lady behind Hibiscus With Ginger. I am barely emerging from a haboob of work, which explains my absence over the past couple of weeks. Yet here I am with a blend that calls for balance and calm, intended for all those in Khartoum who, while making History, are doing their best to keep us informed.
On Monday, September 23rd, I received this one-word Facebook message from my former fixer, who has in-depth knowledge of activist groups and politics in Khartoum. Later, I got similar messages from other Sudanese friends, and my Twitter feed displayed odd bits of news about marches condemning yet another presidential speech. The next day, expatriates took to Facebook and began speaking of significant protests.
At first, I read these statements with skepticism: over the six months I spent freelancing in Sudan, I was “informed” of imminent revolution about as many times as I have eaten fuul. Between over-enthusiastic sources whose claims are systematically disproved, citizen-journalists who don’t cross-check their data and activists who seem to have a hyperbolic view of the slightest event, not to mention politicians who saw me as a convenient PI officer, keeping calm when the grapevine cried wolf quickly became my golden rule.
Now, your former stringer is back in Europe, a very frustrated outside observer of the largest (and bloodiest) protests since 1989. Could this be, at last, the “revolution” activists and opposition leaders kept auguring, and that until now seemed only wishful thinking?
Getting reliable information about Sudan from the outside is hazardous, to say the least. And while this partly has to do with the international media’s lack of interest in Sudan, much of the confusion stems from the contradictory information that pervades social media.
Censorship means that most updates leak via Facebook, Twitter and word-of-mouth – and, because of punctual Internet blackouts widely imputed to the government, even this is limited. On September 25th, for instance, local journalists told me the Security services (NISS) ordered newspapers not to mention the police’s use of force against civilians. In reaction, Al-Jareeda, Al-Qarar and Al-Ayaam decided not to go to print. The next day’s edition of Al-Sudaani (a paper usually seen as relatively uncontroversial vis-à-vis the regime) was confiscated by NISS. Confiscations and intimidations were already common in Sudan, but the press has been suffering even greater pressure since the revolts broke out on Monday. The international media has had more leeway to cover the events, but even they are subject to restrictions. Foreign correspondents have always had to tread carefully – the three last Bloomberg journalists were expulsed from the country, the most recent one only two months ago. This type of intimidation will only worsen as the protests go on: today, September 28th, the government ordered the closure of Al-Arabiya channel’s office in Khartoum. The Sudanese minister of Information, Ahmed Bilal, had recently accused the international media of encouraging the revolts in Sudan.
Social media is already proving to be the richest source for information about what is happening on the ground. However, with rumors and unconfirmed facts fusing from one Twitter account to another, understanding exactly what is happening in Khartoum is proving mind-numbingly difficult. Several sources in Sudan are kind enough to send me updates, but among them even local journalists sometimes present hearsay as fact, only to deny it later. Yesterday, a Sudanese friend with excellent access to activist youth groups (and herself a strong advocate of objective reporting) sent me photographs allegedly taken during the protests. Among them, I recognized a picture I had seen months ago, when a 17-year-old Um Dum resident was killed by the police during the protests that shook the town in April. Among the nebula of photographs on Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, almost none has a caption specifying the date it was taken.
Many social media users are expressing their exasperation with some of the media coverage. One woman told me “Al-Jazeera has become a shameful channel” which spreads “lies”, and had particularly strong words against its (alleged) mention of “armed thugs” taking advantage of the unrest to gratuitously spread havoc, “when Al-Jazeera knows perfectly they are members of NISS”. Several other Khartoumites voiced the same concerns. I have not watched Al-Jazeera today, and the question here is not to criticize any media outlet. (The government does employ and arm an informal militia, the Rabbata, made up of civilians and undercover NISS officers to perpetrate crimes without endorsing responsibility.) In any case, the lack of trust many Sudanese people seem to have in mainstream news outlets encourages them to rely quasi-exclusively on word-of-mouth, which is often taken for granted.
Though it is difficult for the media, or anyone for that matter, to get the story straight – mostly because the “story”, given the context, fluctuates from one minute to the next – local activists and witnesses must equally be careful to share only verified information.
After six days of unrest, many are those who have friends in prison or in one of NISS’s informal detention centers. Some have family members who were injured and friends who were killed. My fixer described the atmosphere as “a crazy thing… Fear, hope, worry, anxiety, joy, sadness, determination.” Another friend, speaking about what she considered unbalanced reporting, said “seeing people get shot in front of you means you’re less ready to be understanding.” The current effervescence and tragic turn of events obviously do not favor cool-headedness and fact checking. Nevertheless, though putting in question news channels’ editorial lines is anyone’s right, it is crucial that all parties – activists, journalists, observers and social media users alike – exercise the same prudence they demand of other reporters.