Decades ago Sudanese people would proudly quip that “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Khartoum reads”.
It might have been the case once, but it’s far from true now. The country’s once lively press has been stifled by ongoing crackdowns on the freedom of speech, and what the younger generation reads, if anything at all, has been reduced to chains of instant messages shared via mobile phone.
In a climate of repression where websites are monitored and newspapers closed by Omar al-Bashir’s authoritarian government, citizens are left with few safe options through which to share articles and voice their dissent.
Websites are monitored by the government, and so it’s the issue of security and anonymity that has driven users, both young and old, to join WhatsApp – the encrypted mobile messaging app – in droves.
The app has become a major source of news to Sudanese people, thanks to the ease of sharing that it offers and the wide reach of the group chat option, which has also helped connect the large diaspora to the latest wedding pictures and local gossip.
The service boasts more than 700m global users, and although no figures are available for the numbers of users based in Sudan, the breakneck speed with which the country has adopted mobile technology suggests the app now has significant reach in Khartoum – and beyond.
Rishan Oshi, an activist and journalist living in the capital, says she uses the service because it’s cheap and offers some safety from government monitoring. “I use it because the security services announced that they are watching Facebook and other means of communication, so WhatsApp is safer in that respect,” she explains.
“I also use it to share important and interesting news in Sudan, and it’s also much cheaper than sending text messages.”
Habeb Elebed, a translator living in the capital, says it’s a fast and easy means of communication among big groups of people: “For example, if anything interesting happens in my area, I can easily send the information to five people, who can send it to others and it can quickly reach 5,000 people.”
According to rights watchdog Freedom House, as internet connections have become cheaper and faster in the country, digital freedoms have been increasingly attacked by Bashir’s government, using tactics that include “censorship of opposition news outlets and forums online; the deployment of a cyber jihadist unit to monitor social media websites; and the harassment and arrest of digital media activists and online journalists,” the organisation reports.
In this paranoid climate, the app has given way to a “sharing revolution” inSudan, where comedians, singers, poets, artists and journalists have found a platform to share their work, uncensored. It has also provided the older generation of oppressed writers and political commentators a new platform.
It’s a welcome hint of freedom after decades of press repression.
During the first half of the 90s after Bashir took power in a military coup, penniless opposition parties and their newspapers were forced to operate out of Egypt or London. Over time, Sudanese people lost access to local unbiased newspapers, while those that remained often contained blatant government propaganda.
Offline, limitations on the press continued as Sudan went from having 55 daily or weekly newspapers and magazines in Arabic and English, to just a handful of publications many of which are now heavily censored.
In the early 2000s, the internet boom surfaced basic websites with information about the country, its politics and particularly, its music. Although often poorly designed, these sites offered a novel and welcome platform for free expression. Finally, the Sudanese opposition had a new outlet.
But more than a decade later, websites appear to have become an outmoded – and unsafe – way of disseminating information.
Since the Arab Spring brought change to north Africa and the Middle East, the Sudanese government – anxious about the power of social media – has targeted bloggers and cyber-dissidents, “with some facing detentions for up to two months and one case of torture reported”, Freedom House wrote in 2013.
In some cases, this has had devastating offline consequences. In 2012, inspired by the Tahrir Square movement, young people in Khartoum organised two mass protests via “Al Face” – what we Sudanese call Facebook – to demand the removal of Bashir.
Tragically, the second protest resulted in more than 200 young people being shotand killed in the streets by government forces.
Since then, the government has funded a Sudan online defence force or “electronic mujahideen” – or as Sudanese people like to call them, The Electronic Chickens – whose sole purpose is to troll online activists and spread propaganda.
In this dire climate, WhatsApp seems to have emerged as a possibility for change, a way to unite both young and old in the fight against government censors.