This investigation documents how journalists endured hundreds of violations over a period of six months since the outbreak of war between the Army and the Rapid Support Forces in Sudan. Both parties to the conflict systematically violate international law, which mandates the protection of civilians and journalists as neutral parties not participating in the war. This comes as the approval of a resolution to investigate war crimes committed there is delayed.
Day: April 23, 2023
Location: A dark room with light filtering in from gaps in the wall.
Manal Ali woke up from the blow she received to her head and slowly began to regain consciousness. Despite the confusion she felt from the impact of the blow; Ali still remembers the last scene of that day; on her way to the bakery in Al Juneina neighbourhood in West Darfur State, a car with masked men stopped near her, she heard a voice calling her name and then nothing.
“This is my end. This is the end,” Ali repeats these words, as she tries to maintain whatever little hope she has left for survival.
Manal Ali is an independent journalist, and one of more than a hundred journalists who were arrested, tortured and threatened by both sides of the conflict in Sudan, for merely trying to report on the reality that the Sudanese people are living through. This story did not begin on April 15, 2023, since earlier signs of war had been looming on the horizon, and everyone was anxiously awaiting “zero hour” while some were hoping that the last week of Ramadan would pass peacefully.
Total darkness: “a certain death”
On the morning of Saturday, April 15, clashes rang out in the capital, Khartoum, between the forces of the national army led by Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, and forces of the Rapid Support Forces RSF led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemedti.” They shared power for a while after the overthrow of Sudanese President Omar Al- Bashir’s government in the popular revolution that started in 2018, and extended into 2019. On October 25, 2021, the two generals carried out a coup against the transitional civilian government, and they stayed in power for more than eighteen months before they engaged in a open armed conflict that began in Khartoum and later extended to the Northern State, North Kordofan, South Kordofan, Darfur, Blue Nile, Al-Qadarif, and Gezira among others.
Dozens of journalists and workers at radio stations and satellite channels in central Khartoum were detained due to armed clashes. Rami Mohammad (a pseudonym) and more than twenty others, including journalists working for Radio Hala 96, and Tana4Media agency located in the Kuwaiti building, went to the parking lot known as the “Bedroom” and stayed there for 72 hours without food supplies. They were all able to leave the place after the first truce came into effect, according to Mohammad, who thought that his death was certain.
The war extends into other states
Manal Ali says, “The homes of journalists were targeted; they had a list of our names, and the Rapid Support Forces were searching for us by name. They destroyed my house completely.” On the first day, Manal lost seven members of her family, including her brother.
As part of her job, Manal Ali received reports of rape incidents that took place in Darfur State, specifically in Al Juneina where she lives. “There were recordings for nine cases of rape, and I was communicating with the victims before communications were all cut off.” Ali says that she received a phone call in which the speaker threatened to kill her if she published any details about the rape incidents. However, the real nightmare started on April 23, a day after the war broke out in her city, Al Juneina, when Ali was kidnapped by masked men wearing the uniform of the Rapid Support Forces. When she woke up from the blow to her head, she found herself in a dark room. Ali remembers some sentences that stuck in her memory, “This is not the right time to kill you. We killed some of your family members, and we will torture you by letting you see the rest of your family being killed: Then, killing you will become easy.” Ali who resides in the city of Al Juneina in western Sudan spent five days in an isolated room and was subjected to severe beating, torture and threats to eliminate more of her family members and relatives.
She said that on April 27, 2023, they beat her until she lost consciousness. On the same night, Ali was found in an area close to where she was kidnapped, lying near the neighbourhood mosque in a critical condition. She was treated and later transferred to her family’s home, after which she began her journey to escape the war as she crossed into Chad.
Silencing the Journalists
Just like Manal Ali received threats because of her coverage of rape incidents, journalist Issa Dafaallah had a similar experience while preparing a news report on the looting of shops in Nyala.
Dafaallah explains that while filming business premises and shops on May 17, a group affiliated with the Rapid Support Forces intercepted him, prevented him from continuing his work and dragged him to the airport neighbourhood. Dafaallah says, “They asked to see my journalist ID card, and they took me to the airport neighbourhood where I was beaten and kicked, and my phone was confiscated.”
Dafaallah highlights that the attempts to prevent press coverage of the events coincided with what he describes as the “doomsday battle” in the city of Nyala. Moreover, Dafaallah pointed out that both sides of the conflict issued orders to silence journalists accusing them of affiliation with one of the warring parties.
Italian journalist Sara Creta, arrived at the Sudanese-Ethiopian border on May 7. That is, three weeks after the outbreak of clashes.
The Sudanese authorities did not allow her to enter the country; she was detained by the Military Intelligence Department in the border region for a few hours, and she was asked to return to where she came from. The journalist works with several international channels, including Al Jazeera and The Guardian, and she tried to enter again through the Blue Nile region, but she was denied access to Ad-Damazin, and was asked to leave. Sara says, “They told me that they cannot guarantee my safety there, and currently they told me, there are orders prohibiting the entry of foreigners. The situation is volatile, I meant to stay in an area where there was no fighting. Both factions used the same language, so I felt that they were using the security argument as an excuse.”
From April 2023, until the end of September, the Journalists’ Syndicate recorded several violations, including killings, detentions, injuries, threats and assaults on property. The head of the Journalists’ Syndicate Abdel Monim Abu Idris says that Sudanese journalists are part of civil society, and they suffer just like civilians do to a large extent, besides enduring violations because of their work; they are arrested to prevent them from practicing their profession. Abu Idris says, “We lost two journalists; our colleague Samaher was killed in Zalingei after a mortar fell on her house, and our colleague Issam Morjan was found murdered in his home in Omdurman, which is under the control of the Rapid Support Forces. He was buried in his house and not even in the cemetery.”
According to Abu Idris, the violations do not only impact journalists; rather, their family members and relatives are targeted as well. He stated that one journalist lost his wife.
Attacks on journalists’ homes lead the list of the violations they experienced during the first five months of the war
- Number of journalists Assaults on homes: 71
- Number of journalists Detention: 43
- Number of journalists Aggression by beating and theft of personal property: 22
- Number of journalists Attacks on media organizations: 21
- Number of journalists Arrests: 18
- Number of journalists Shootings: 15
- Number of journalists Threats: 13
- Number of journalists Injuries: 7
- Number of journalists Killing relatives: 4
- Number of journalists Murders: 4
- Number of journalists Enforced disappearances: 2
- Number of journalists Banning from travel: 1
- Number of journalists General threats: 0
Abu Idris points out that the majority of public and private media organizations have been targeted since the beginning of the war, and have stopped working as a result. The head of the Journalists’ Syndicate attributes this to the proximity of these organizations offices to the areas of clashes. He added that most of their offices were attacked and looted.
From the onset of the war, the premises of the national Radio and Television Corporation were taken over by the Rapid Support Forces, and have been turned into military barracks since.
Violations have been committed by both parties to the conflict
On May 11, 2023, the Sudanese Armed Forces, and the Rapid Support Forces signed the Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Civilians of Sudan under the auspices of the governments of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America, but the treaty failed to put a stop to the war between the two parties.
A clause guaranteeing the rights of journalists was absent from the declaration, and the violations committed against male and female journalists prompted eighteen media entities and organizations to sign and issue a statement in mid-August calling on the international community to take action to protect journalists. The statement also called on both sides of the conflict to stop the war, open humanitarian corridors, enable journalists to cover events and facilitate their movement. According to the statement, journalists were subjected to physical assault, arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances. Female journalists particularly experienced gender-based violence, such as sexual exploitation.
The testimonies of the journalists we interviewed and the analysis of the data we obtained from the Journalists’ Syndicate confirm that both the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support forces have pressured journalists.
Ali Tariq, a journalist who works for Al Jarida newspaper, left Khartoum as the clashes escalated and headed to his hometown in Sennar State and worked from home. On August 16, he was summoned to the General Intelligence Service, following a press report he had published about the conditions of those fleeing Khartoum to the city of Sinja in Sennar State and documenting the harassment experienced by the displaced in the shelters provided.
The security authorities rejected the accusations about their inability to provide a suitable environment in the shelters and pointed out that these were baseless claims. Tariq was imprisoned, and his family was not allowed to communicate with him or to know anything about him.
He was only released when he went on hunger strike on the fourth day of his detention. Tariq says he was warned against writing about humanitarian issues related to displaced people and against naming the General Intelligence Service in future journalistic pieces.
The Rapid Support Forces and the Sudanese Armed Forces tried to distance themselves from the accusations through their media platforms. The Rapid Support Forces went as far as indirectly accusing the Sudanese Armed Forces of committing crimes while disguised as members of Rapid Support Forces.
The war reaches social media sites
Social media platforms were inundated with news promoted by both sides of the conflict. As journalists shared parts of the news and narrative, lists were published that affiliated them with one of the two warring sides. This led to the spread of hate speech against journalists from unknown entities, and an exchange of accusations amongst journalists themselves on social media platforms. Female journalists were subjected to blackmail and exploitation attempts in order to pass the agenda of supporters of one or the other of the warring parties by making them financial offers, or they tried to intimidate them and threatened to prosecute them if they refused to cooperate.
Hiba Abdel Azim is an independent journalist who was threatened by her colleague in a WhatsApp group, which includes more than sixty-seven journalists most of whom are reporters, following a discussion about who started the war. Abdel Azim says, “Initially, I brushed off the threat, but what really scared me was that the person knew where our house is and knew all my family members. His threat to come to the house terrified me, so we decided to leave home.”
Abdel Azim says that the presence of members of the executive office of the Journalists’ Syndicate in the group did not deter journalists from using hate speech, and neither did the office members condemn the threats directed towards her.
Samar Suleiman had a similar experience; she received threats through the Messenger application, including one from a former minister. She was also asked to broadcast television material on the satellite channel she used to work for, in return for a financial award. When she refused the offer, she was threatened that she will be reached and delt with after the end of the war.
Journalists are direct targets
Data indicate that there are about 71 cases in which the home of a journalist (male or female) were directly attacked. Abdel Monim Adam is a human rights lawyer and director of the Access to Justice Project, says that journalists are protected by law, and any violation of their rights constitutes a blatant violation of international law. Adam explains that this law is meant to mitigate the effects of wars and limit their them to the warring parties. The law expressly states that civilians are covered by legal protection, and they do not participate in hostilities directly. Adam believes that journalists and press institutions are not war targets; their journalistic work or reporting is not considered a participation in war, even if that news is false or misleading. According to Adam, journalist must enjoy double protection, once as civilians and then as journalists.
Adam adds that journalists in Sudan have faced pressure to take sides in the war, which is a clear violation of the text of the law, as they are not required to provide any information except within a professional framework, and any violation of the immunity granted to them under the law is considered a war crime.
Appendix: Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, 1977
Article 79: Measures to protect journalists
- Journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict shall be considered civilians within the meaning of Article 50, paragraph 1.
- They shall be protected as such under the Conventions and this Protocol, provided that they take no action adversely affecting their status as civilians, and without prejudice to the rights of war correspondents approved by the armed forces to benefit from the provisions of Article 4 (A – 4) of the Third Convention.
Customary rules of international humanitarian law: Rule 34
- “Civilian journalists working on professional missions in areas of armed conflict must be respected and protected as long as they are not taking a direct part in hostilities…”
The journey to exit Sudan: Colour, race and identity become parameters for elimination
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says, “Around 4.600.000 Sudanese have been internally displaced since the beginning of clashes, as they seaked refuge in various parts of the country. Around 1.1 million Sudanese crossed into several countries, including the Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia and the neighbouring Republic of South Sudan until the second half of October 2023.”
Manal Ali describes her journey out of Sudan which started on April 31. With her father she got into a car to be smuggled out of Al-Juneina area. She was worries about her father in case her identity would be revealed. The driver motioned to her to hand him her possessions, such as her phone and laptop, so these would not be stolen from her. They arrived at the first checkpoint of the armed militias, and they passed safely because the driver was “one of them,” she says. At the second checkpoint, they took the passengers’ possessions, except for what the driver had hidden. At the last checkpoint, Ali remembers how she and the Nubian passengers were described by the colour of their skin, and she regretfully recalls the use of what she describes as hate speech. Then, they finally made it to the Chadian border.
Abbas Al-Khair who is a field correspondent for the “Sudan Bukra” channel had a similar experience although with a different culprit. In late May 2023, he began his journey out of Khartoum towards Madani, where he was stopped by the army and was asked to show proof of his identity. Al-Khair says, “My passport shows that I was born in Nyala, so he said, ‘You are a member of the Rapid Support Forces.’ I told them I was not a member of the Rapid Support Forces and that I am a resident of Shambat as my driver’s license shows, so they allowed me to go through.”
He left Al-Qadarif towards Ethiopia. At Al-Duqa checkpoint, the Military Intelligence Department charged him with affiliation with the Rapid Support Forces, just because of his identity papers and the colour of his skin. He was asked to raise his shirt, and he almost lost his life because of an old stab wound in his back. He was forced to take off his clothes. Al-Khair adds, “A member of the Armed Forces at the checkpoint asked me to remove my belt and pants, so I complied under duress. Then, they searched me and touched sensitive parts of my body.”
Later, Al-Khair was beaten and detained for long hours. He was taken to a blood-stained room to force him to confess to belonging to the Rapid Support Forces, where he was beaten and abused. While searching his belongings, journalistic material that focuses on the root causes of the popular uprising were found. This would have complicated matters more, but he told them that he had left work for that channel months ago.
Abbas Al-Khair says he was only released after one of his relatives who is an officer in the Sudanese Armed Forces was contacted.
Al-Khair and Ali are among dozens of journalists who left Sudan seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.
The head of the Journalists’ Syndicate Abdel Monim Abu Idris confirmed that the International Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders have helped evacuate a number of male and female journalists out of Sudan, and there are ongoing attempts to evacuate more of them. According to Abu Idris, the majority of journalists left for Egypt.
On October 11, 2023, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to form a committee to investigate human rights violations. Britain had submitted a draft resolution to the Human Rights Council to investigate violations by both sides of the conflict in Sudan. The Sudanese government rejected the draft resolution and deemed it unfair, since it equated the legitimate authority of the Armed Forces with that of the rebel forces.”
While this war rages on, claiming more than one thousands dead and thousands more injured, and pushing five million Sudanese to be displaced, Manal Ali, who recently settled in Uganda, says, “I am living in dire circumstances; I lost everything, and I lost my identity because my journalistic work was everything.” She stressed that like innocent civilians, journalists pay a heavy toll in this war.