Sudan: Scoring high in censorship

The National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), the Cyber-Jihadist Unit and the National Telecommunication Corporation (NTC)

The Omar Al-Bashir regime has held Sudan in an iron grip for the past 25 years. As new technologies develop and internet penetration increases (17 per cent of the population was connected in 2012), methods of control and repression have also been evolving.

The Cyber-Jihadist Unit

In 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring, Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party, fearing the spread of political challenges from abroad via social media, decided to upgrade its internet surveillance capability by forming a “Cyber Jihadist Unit” assigned to conduct “online defence operations” to “crush” internet dissidents.

Two hundred agents spread throughout the country, working in shifts to provide 24 hour-a-day capability, especially during  peak internet usage hours – nights and weekends. The unit was strengthened in 2012, when the Sudanese blogosphere was experiencing an unprecedented boom, growing from 70 to 300 blogs over a period of 18 months.

 The security services recruit agents from public higher education institutions including the National Ribat University. New recruits receive online piracy training in Malaysia and India. They are trained to monitor internet content, hack online accounts (email, Facebook, Twitter), block or take down sites and identify targets to put out of action.

 However, the Cyber-Jihadist Unit on its own would be insignificant without the protection afforded  by its parent organization, the NISS, the main agency for repression and censorship in Sudan.

The National Intelligence and Security Services

 The Cyber-Jihadist Unit works with complete freedom of action thanks to the National Security Act of 2010, under which the NISS operates. This law reinforces the impunity with which NISS agents operate, allowing them to arrest any journalist and censor any publication on “national security” grounds. The NISS can keep an individual in detention for up to 45 days without charges, with the authorization renewable when the initial period expires.

Before the cyber unit was created, a series of laws had already authorized control and repression of online information. In 2007, adoption of the IT Crime Act further weakened freedom of expression on the web and imposed penalties of up to two years in prison and heavy fines. People who create web sites critical of the government risk these punishments. In 2008, a law requiring mobile phone owners to register their SIM cards allowed intelligence agencies to more easily trace journalists and activists through their phones.

 National Telecommunication Corporation

 The NISS and Cyber-Jihadist Unit are reinforced by the NTC. Founded in 1996, the NTC is a government agency in charge of regulating information and communication technology. The NTC formed an Internet Service Control Unit to decide what content should be accessible on the internet. If the government determines some information to be too sensitive, it blocks the host platform. This has occurred repeatedly since 2008 to the news site and forum, Sudanese Online, which posted information on the war in Darfur.

 In response to the anti-government demonstrations that broke out nationwide in 2013, the NTC frequently blocked the sites for Sudanese Online, Al-Rakaba, and Hurriyat as well YouTube and other sites.

The agency went so far as to cut off the internet entirely for the entire country. In June-July 2013, the internet transmission system was slowed to the point that the network was completely inaccessible for several hours. On 25 September 2013, a total internet blackout lasted 24 hours. The objective was to hamper the organizing of demonstrations on social networks. As information flow came to a halt, the extent of official repression could not be known for several hours. The NTC denied official responsibility for the blackout, accusing demonstrators. But they had nothing to gain by cutting off their means of communication, and lacked the capacity to do so.

 Faced with the expansion of online censorship, a growing number of opposition web sites install their servers abroad. Sudanese Online, for example, is hosted in the United States.

 NTC and NISS agents’ technological shortcomings and limited English-language skills stand as the last barrier against total government control of the internet. Content in English and its authors are subjected less frequently to officially sponsored attacks. The emphasis is on Arabic content, reflecting concerns over domestic developments.

 Online news and netizens under attack

 The pace of censorship accelerated in 2011-2012. In an effort to bypass controls, some media workers opted to post prohibited content on their Web pages or Facebook profiles. NISS agents then began targeting this form of online journalism. Private emails are increasingly intercepted, and mobile phones are used to geo-locate journalists and activists.

 Popular uprisings in June-July, 2012 and June and September of 2013 prompted the arrests of numerous bloggers, journalists and activists. Agents often forced them to open and take down their Facebook and Twitter accounts. This forcible access to personal data also allows security forces to map dissidents’ networks.

 Video blogger Najla Sid-Ahmed was systematically harassed by security services in 2012 and forced to flee the country in July of that year. She became a target because of her videos documenting human rights abuses. NISS agents robbed her, confiscated her audio-visual material, and arrested her, holding her for several hours without food. She was then accused conspiracy and hate incitement, charges punishable by death in Sudan.

 Journalist and activist Somaia Ibrahim Ismail, known as “Hundosa,” a government opponent, was arrested on 29 October 2010, then seized by security service agents who tortured her for three days, on the pretext of membership in an armed group. She fled the country in November, 2012.

 On 22 June 2012, NISS agents arrested Ussamah Mohamed, whose tweets and blog postings made him very popular, especially in Burri, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Khartoum. He was beaten for hours after refusing to unlock his iPhone. He was released in early August, 2012, after a detention marked by long interrogations focused on his Facebook and Twitter accounts, and online opposition forums.

 Since 2008, due to its content about the war in Darfur and popular uprisings, the Sudanese Online site has been hit by repeated blocking, hacking and infiltration by the NISS cyber brigade. The unit penetrates online discussions to gather information on cyber-dissidents and spread false information. News sites characterized as oppositionist, such as Al-Rakoba and Hurriyat are frequently blocked. The longest-running of these actions hit Al-Rakoba, which was inaccessible for 10 months, from June, 2012 to April, 2013.

 In September, 2012, following the posting of the online video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” which unleashed massive protests throughout the Arab world, NTC blocked YouTube access for one month.

Widespread internet blackouts aimed at shutting down media amount to another form of radical censorship that the regime uses to hamper freedom of information and repress all criticism.