Sudan: A year into the conflict, the fog of war persists

Sudan: A year into the conflict, the fog of war persists - Protection

Omdurman Market, Sudan, May 2023. Photo: Abd_Almohimen_Sayed / Shutterstock

As we mark the one-year anniversary since hostilities broke out in Sudan between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on 15 April 2023, ARTICLE 19 warns about the long-lasting consequences of this devastating conflict. In what many have dubbed the ‘silent war,’ thousands of people have been killed, and millions displaced. Moreover, our findings depict a grim reality of a freedom of expression crisis in this ongoing war that has only deepened over the past year. 

While much of the world’s attention has been on the catastrophic conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine, the relentless violence in Sudan continues outside the spotlight. Both the SAF and the RSF have reportedly committed gross violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law, with some actions potentially amounting to war crimes and other serious international crimes. The suffering of civilians is immense.

Although international law protects freedom of expression during armed conflict, it is often the first casualty in war. Sudan has been no exception. In May 2023, ARTICLE 19 published a detailed analysis of how civilians’ access to life-saving information has been undermined since the start of the hostilities as well as the applicable rules under both international human rights and humanitarian law. 

A year into the conflict, ARTICLE 19’s findings show that freedom of expression violations by the warring parties have continued. We observe that the ongoing targeting of journalists and human rights defenders, the repeated internet shutdowns, and the continued and systematic spread of manipulated information by the warring parties collectively paint the picture of an all-out information war waged by both sides, aiming to control the narrative and evade accountability.

How has the safety situation for journalists developed?

In May 2023, we denounced the numerous physical attacks, threats, and intimidation directed at journalists, which not only put them at great personal risk but also obstructed their ability to cover the conflict. 

Since then, the targeting of journalists by both the SAF and the RSF has not abated but intensified, forcing the majority of media institutions to cease operations and many journalists to flee the country. As of 15 December 2023, the Sudanese Journalists Syndicate documented 353 instances of violations and abuses against journalists with at least four journalists killed. Recently, on 1 March 2024, Khalid Balal, media director at the Supreme Council for Media and Culture, a government regulatory body, was killed by armed combatants at his home in North Darfur State. According to sources, he was killed due to his long career in journalism. In June 2023, former regime supporters posted a list of names of journalists on Facebook, accusing them of supporting the RSF, which led to direct threats against journalists. 

Besides journalists, human rights defenders and other civil society actors face severe threats, hindering their vital work in monitoring and reporting on human rights abuses. The February 2024 report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on the human rights situation in Sudan documents a pattern of arbitrary detention of civil society actors, including members of emergency rooms and resistance committees and human rights defenders, by both parties to the conflict. The OHCHR identified nine cases whose fate remained unknown as of 15 December 2023 and that could amount to enforced disappearances. 

ARTICLE 19 strongly condemns all attacks against journalists and human rights defenders. These individuals courageously put themselves in immense danger to document the atrocities committed and give voice to the victims of this conflict. They are civilians who must be protected at all cost. Targeting them deprives the civilians in Sudan and the outside world of critical information about the facts on the ground, hinders future accountability efforts, and constitutes severe violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. 


How have the SAF and RSF continued manipulating the narrative in this conflict? 

In May 2023, ARTICLE 19 raised alarm about the tactics employed by both warring parties to manipulate the conflict narrative, flooding Sudan’s online space with false claims, manipulated and fabricated information aimed at intimidating the civilian population. 

Reports from Beam Reports, an organisation that investigates instances of information manipulation in Sudan, indicate that this is still a significant problem in this conflict. Social media accounts are for example disseminating videos from 2013 to make claims about territorial advances by the parties and fabricated videos depicting the destruction of a university. 

After their official Facebook pages were removed for violating Meta’s Dangerous Organizations and Individuals policy, RSF reportedly turned to X to spread disinformation, including to evade responsibility for atrocities. In November, the RSF and allied militias launched an attack in West Darfur, resulting in the killing of more than 800 individuals based on their ethnicity according to the testimonies and the findings of international organisations. Nevertheless, RSF’s official X account reportedly released a media statement falsely claiming the area was instead shelled by the SAF and former regime members.

Beam Reports’ investigations most recently found that both the RSF and the SAF have started to use more sophisticated methods and tools, including artificial intelligence, to manufacture false and misleading information to support their narratives and influence internal and external public opinion. 

ARTICLE 19 calls on both parties engaged in the conflict to refrain from pursuing campaigns that distort the information environment in a manner that can harm civilians and from encouraging third parties to do so as well. Such campaigns increase civilians’ exposure to risk and vulnerabilities, making it extremely difficult for them to protect themselves by accessing reliable information and seeking refuge from fighting zones. They can also prolong the conflict, endanger the work of humanitarian organisations, escalate tensions among the affected populations, and result in violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. 

Has connectivity been restored since the early days of the hostilities? 

In May 2023, we condemned the repeated internet and telecom disruptions across Sudan that were due to various reasons, including blocking orders by the government, power outages, fuel shortages, and the RSF’s occupation of Sudatel Telecom Group’s data centres.

Telecommunications and internet services have continued to be regularly interrupted over the past year. Both the SAF and RSF have deployed internet shutdowns to disrupt information flows in areas controlled by the opposing side. A near-total communications blackout imposed in early February 2024 lasted for several weeks, further exacerbating the danger for civilians by restricting their access to life-saving information and necessities and their ability to send and receive money, and impeding the delivery of humanitarian and emergency services

The shutdowns also further complicate the work of journalists and human rights defenders in reporting on the conflict and documenting what is happening in Sudan. It has been reported that journalists have resorted to using Starlink devices, which comes with risks. Al-Sudani editor Ataf Mohamed raised concerns in an interview with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) regarding the RSF’s capability to track journalists using Starlink and potential retaliatory actions against those covering RSF’s atrocities (according to news reports, RSF is also making profit by trading the Starlink devices).

ARTICLE 19 urges the parties to the conflict to refrain from imposing any further internet and telecom disruptions, which do not only violate international human rights law but also several international humanitarian law provisions, including the obligation to ensure respect for international humanitarian law, the principle of proportionality, and the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks. 

Have digital companies stepped up their efforts to uphold their responsibilities under international human rights and humanitarian law in this conflict?

In May 2023, ARTICLE 19 called out the inaction of digital companies and urged them to live up to their responsibilities as key actors in this conflict. 

As many criticise the fact that the conflict in Sudan has not received due coverage in international media, personal testimonies from affected individuals or citizen journalists on social media have become increasingly important for documenting events unfolding in this conflict. At the same time, online platforms bear responsibility to mitigate the risks of their platforms being used for doxing journalists or spreading information that could put civilians at further risk. 

During armed conflicts, the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) require companies to respect international humanitarian law and conduct enhanced human rights due diligence. This involves a conflict-sensitive analysis of the root causes and nature of the conflict, an understanding of the main actors involved, and a specific assessment of how the platforms’ operations and design can contribute to social tensions or conflict or adversely impact human rights in the conflict.

Online platforms should also be transparent about key outcomes of their human rights impact assessments and steps taken in response to the conflict. Yet, we are missing any such transparency in the case of Sudan. For example, while Meta has published some of the steps taken following the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine and the war in Israel and Palestine (albeit those have been strongly criticised by human rights organisations), there has been no similar publication regarding the conflict in Sudan. Other platforms have also not been transparent about the steps they have taken (if any) to address and mitigate the human rights risks of the use of their platforms during this conflict in Sudan. 

We urge platforms to take all necessary steps to protect their Sudanese users in this horrendous conflict. In addition, transparency is crucial for enabling civil society and the wider public to scrutinise platforms’ actions and their role in this conflict. This includes disclosing the resources they allocated to their content moderation efforts to account for the increased online and offline risks during conflicts, the level of engagement with humanitarian organisations and local civil society groups on the ground (taking into consideration the safety risks of the latter), and whether there are any rapid response systems to enable human rights groups to escalate urgent matters to the platforms and take swift action when user safety is at risk. 

ARTICLE 19 also reminds internet service providers and telecommunication companies operating in Sudan, including MTN, Zain, Sudatel, or Canar, of their human rights responsibilities, namely to take all possible measures to prevent a shutdown that they have been asked to implement from proceeding and prevent or mitigate to the extent possible adverse human rights impacts. They should also publicly disclose details about any shutdown orders they receive. 


A year into the conflict, we demand accountability

Those responsible for the severe violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights, including freedom of expression, must face consequences.

ARTICLE 19 urges accountability mechanisms like the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Sudan and the International Criminal Court (which has jurisdiction over crimes committed in the Darfur region) to specifically consider how the information war in Sudan exacerbates harm to civilians, obstructs vital documentation of gross human rights and humanitarian law violations and contributes to the commission of crimes.

Accountability will require first paying attention to what is happening in Sudan. The international community and international media outlets must finally stop turning a blind eye to the suffering of civilians in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The silence towards this conflict only serves to worsen the atrocities perpetrated against them.