In November 2021, ARTICLE 19 published a briefing calling on the Sudan Government to immediately repeal its 2018 Cybercrime Law that imposes unacceptable restrictions on the right to freedom of expression. The 2020 amendments, criminalising the spread of ‘fake news’ online, introduced even harsher restrictions that severely impact journalists and their reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. We warn that the heavy sanctions will further silence independent reporting, rather than fight disinformation.
In July 2020, the Prime Minister of Sudan, Abdalla Hamdok, signed amendments to the Law to Combat Information Crimes – the Cybercrime Law of 2018 (the Cybercrime Law) that introduced criminal penalties targeting the spread of ‘fake news’ online. While the origin of the Cybercrime Law is difficult to discern as it predates the 2018 revolution, the Government of Sudan through the Ministry of Justice has never published or made the Law publicly available, which goes against the rule of law principles. The lack of publication of the law did not allow for any debate over its content.
In the briefing, ARTICLE 19 assesses the Cybercrime Law and its amendments against international freedom of expression standards. In particular:
- The Cybercrime Law contains several definitions and concepts that are overly broad and vague, which makes identifying the conducts susceptible to be punished under this Law difficult to determine. This could also mean that legitimate activities could be sanctioned.
- The Cybercrime Law contains several content- and speech-based offences (provoking hated against foreigners, violation of religious beliefs, insults and abuses, criminal defamation or morality offences) that are not related to fighting cybercrime. These provisions can easily be twisted to attack and silence activists, human rights defenders and journalists.
- The Cybercrime Law also contains vague prohibitions of ‘false news’. As it stands, any Internet user who inadvertently shares a tweet or Facebook post, for example, that contained false, deceptive, misleading or inaccurate information could be prosecuted under this provision. It would also make the work of the online media outlets susceptible to prosecution. Although media should not aim to report false news, an actual prohibition on such news makes the work of journalists covering current developments unreasonably dangerous, as in situations of breaking news, facts are often not easy to check. Moreover, information can evolve over time, especially in the context of a pandemic. As we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, guidelines have changed and recommendations evolved (for example, the wearing of a facemask).
Over and above the non-publication of the Law before it was adopted, ARTICLE 19 is also concerned about how the Cybercrime Law has been used to suppress independent journalism and reporting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sudanese journalists have been threatened for criticising the Government on social media. Journalist Adel Keller was threatened on air while interviewing a security adviser. Unfortunately, Adel Keller is only one in a long list of journalists and activists who have been targeted for their views.
In its current form, the Cybercrime Law will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and freedom of the media in Sudan. We, therefore, call on the Sudan government to amend the Cybercrime Law so it fully meets international freedom of expression standards.