Sudanese demonstrators chant slogans as they march along the street during anti-government protests in Khartoum

Sudan authorities clamp down on social media to quash protest movement

Image credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/File Photo

Sudanese authorities are blocking access to popular social media platforms, which anti-government are using to organise and broadcast nationwide protests triggered by the country's economic crisis, local internet users have claimed.

Throughout the last fortnight, Sudan has been rocked by daily demonstrations, with protesters setting alight ruling party buildings and calling on President Omar al-Bashir - who first took power in a 1989 military coup - to step down.

Given that the Sudanese state authorities already tightly control traditional media, such as newspapers and television, the internet has become the new key information battleground. In a population of 40 million people, approximately 13 million Sudanese people use the internet and more than 28 million own a smartphone, according to local media.

Historically, a total internet blackout was imposed in 2013 during a previous period of extremely violent protest. Regarding the latest unrest, Salah Abdallah, the former head of Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service, told a news conference in December 2018: “There was a discussion in the government about blocking social media sites and in the end it was decided to block them.”

Users of the three main telecoms operators in Sudan - Zain, MTN and Sudani - have reported that access to Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp has only been possible through use of a virtual private network (VPN). While VPNs can have connection problems of their own, and their use is not widely understood among the general population, some Sudanese activists have been actively using them to organise and document the demonstrations.

Hashtags in Arabic such as “Sudan’s_cities_revolt” have been widely circulated, accompanied by hashtags in English such as #SudanRevolts.

“Social media has a really big impact and it helps with forming public opinion and transmitting what’s happening in Sudan to the outside,” said Mujtaba Musa, a Sudanese Twitter user with over 50,000 followers who has been active in documenting the protests.

NetBlocks, a digital rights NGO, said that data it collected, including from thousands of Sudanese volunteers, provided evidence of “an extensive internet censorship regime”.

Bader al-Kharafi, CEO of parent company Zain Group, told Reuters: “Some websites may be blocked for technical reasons beyond the company’s specialisation.”

Neither the National Telecommunications Corporation, which oversees the sector in Sudan, nor MTN or Sudani could be reached for comment. Twitter and Facebook, which also owns WhatsApp, declined to comment.

“While Sudan has a long history of systematically censoring print and broadcast media, online media has been relatively untouched despite its exponential growth in recent years,” said Mai Truong of US-based advocacy group Freedom House. “The authorities have only now started to follow the playbook of other authoritarian governments.”

The unrest in Sudan continues, as a financial crisis threatens to engulf the nation and topple long-standing incumbent President al-Bashir. The civil unrest was provoked in December by rising bread prices, culminating in demonstrators razing the ruling party headquarters in the city of Atbara and triggering two weeks of ongoing protests that soon spread across the entire country.

So far, officials have acknowledged 19 deaths as a result of the demonstrations, although Amnesty International has reported that is has received credible reports that 37 protesters have already been shot dead. Today (Thursday) Sudanese security forces were seen firing tear gas at protesters who were trying to deliver an anti-government petition to the local headquarters of President al-Bashir’s ruling party in Port Sudan, according to an eye witness.

President al-Bashir has survived as one of the region’s longest-serving leaders, despite 20 years of US sanctions and an indictment by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur.

In a similar vein regarding the suppression of internet freedom, Vietnam’s new cyber-security law came into effect on 1 January 2019, censoring what its citizens can read online and placing strict controls on the operations of overseas tech companies within the country.  

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