Sudan: Free expression must be protected amidst violence

Sudan: Free expression must be protected amidst violence - Protection

Protest against the war in Sudan, London, 29 April 2023. Photo: Zakariya Irfan/ Shutterstock

ARTICLE 19 condemns recent attacks on freedom of expression during the ongoing conflict between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). As negotiations between the warring parties are underway, ARTICLE 19 calls on both sides to protect the free flow of information, which is crucial in ensuring the safety of civilians during this conflict.

Since fighting erupted on 15 April 2023 between the country’s military, the SAF, and the paramilitary group RSF, attacks on free expression both online and offline have increased. Journalists and media personnel are struggling to report the news safely, there are severe internet disruptions and disinformation is spread by both parties to the conflict.

The situation in Sudan is not unique. Freedom of expression and information are often the first casualties during armed conflicts. Yet, it is precisely during times of conflict that freedom of expression and a free flow of information should be vigorously defended. This enables civilians to receive potentially life-saving information on the security situation, to access safe passage or humanitarian assistance, and to contact their loved ones. It also allows journalists to disseminate accurate information about the conflict to the public and report on crimes committed by the warring parties.

Freedom of expression continues to apply to the conflict in Sudan

Given their intensity, the violent clashes in Sudan between the SAF and the RSF meet the criteria for a non-international armed conflict (NIAC). It is the latest of a number of NIACs in Sudan, with the government of Sudan involved in at least two other NIACs against the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army in Darfur and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North in Kordofan and Blue Nile states.

The classification as a NIAC means that international humanitarian law (IHL) – which seeks to limit the effects of armed conflicts by restricting the permissible means and methods of warfare – applies to the conduct of the hostilities between the SAF and the RSF. The relevant IHL provisions that apply to NIACs are common Article 3 to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions of 1977 (Additional Protocol II), and customary international humanitarian law applicable to NIACs. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has called on all parties to this conflict in Sudan to respect their obligations under IHL.

In addition to IHL, international human rights law – including the right to freedom of expression and to receive and impart information – continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Sudan is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protects freedom of expression in its Article 19. If there is a conflict between an IHL norm and a provision under international human rights law, priority should be given to the (lex specialis) norm that is more specific.

In addition to the territorial State and its forces, armed groups such as the RSF are also increasingly considered to be bound by international human rights law if they exercise government-like functions or de facto control over some areas.

Journalists, media personnel and media facilities must be protected  

According to a statement by the International Federation of Journalists, at least 15 media workers were trapped inside the Sudan News Agency building in Khartoum for three days without food and water when the clashes first broke out. The Sudanese Journalists Union also reported that journalists and media workers were beaten at Meore airport. In addition, they report that a shell fell on the ceiling of the General Authority for Radio and Television in the city of Omdurman during a live broadcast with more than 12 journalists and media workers present. Fortunately, none of them were injured. In a 4 May 2023 interview, the chairman of the Sudanese Journalists Union stated that journalists working for local, regional, and international media continued to be physically attacked, threatened, intimidated, and prevented from reporting about the conflict.

Media professionals reporting on armed conflict situations enjoy the full scope of protection granted to civilians under IHL – which means that they are protected against attacks unless they take a direct part in hostilities. According to Article 79 I of Additional Protocol II, ‘journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict shall be considered as civilians within the meaning of Article 50, paragraph 1’. Directing attacks against journalists during armed conflicts therefore constitutes a clear breach of IHL.

Parties to the conflict must stop spreading disinformation

In addition to the physical clashes, a media and narrative war is taking place in Sudan. Both the SAF and the RSF are reportedly ‘flooding the media with false information’ and pushing ‘twisted facts’ in online media campaigns that are aimed at deepening the ‘state of fear’.

In particular, the RSF appears to have professionalised its approach in improving its image and stepped up its capacity to amplify disinformation. Researchers at the Atlantic Council – working with data from Beam Reports, which investigates disinformation in Sudan – identified around 900 Twitter accounts that seemed to be artificially amplifying RSF messages on social media. At the same time, after Twitter removed legacy blue ticks, there has been confusion after a fake account subscribed to Twitter Blue that falsely represented the RSF and wrongly claimed that the group’s leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, had died in the conflict. The tweet was viewed over one million times. This adds to reports of images and videos that have been circulating on social media that were falsely attributed to the fighting in Sudan (although at times containing old footage, including from conflicts in Yemen or Libya), fuelling confusion and fear among the public.

These disinformation campaigns make it extremely difficult for civilians to access reliable information and distinguish what is true and false. Disinformation can further escalate tensions, fuel hatred and mistrust, and undermine efforts to reach a peaceful resolution. While most disinformation and propaganda activities are not per se illegal under international law – IHL is in fact generally permissive of propaganda, with only scarce and non-systematic limitations – they may prolong the conflict, lead to violations of IHL, and have other harmful effects on civilians.

In her August 2022 report on ‘Disinformation and freedom of opinion and expression during armed conflicts’ the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression (Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression) called on States to refrain from making, sponsoring, encouraging, or disseminating false information to degrade the information environment during armed conflicts. While the report did not examine the role of armed groups, they too should refrain from engaging in disinformation and propaganda activities, given the harm it can cause to civilians.  

Connectivity needs to be restored 

Since the fighting broke out, there have been repeated internet and telecom disruptions in Sudan for a number of reasons. At the start of the conflict, on 16 April 2023, MTN Sudan blocked internet services at the request of the government’s telecommunications regulator for a few hours before being ordered to restore it. Disruptions to telecom and internet services over the following days were also due to power outages and difficulties in transporting fuel for generators. As reported by SMEX, the SAF also announced on 23 April 2023 that the RSF occupied Sudatel Center housing the data centres of telecommunications and internet service provider Sudatel, which led to the shut down of the company’s services. 

Overall, Cloudfare reported on 2 May 2023 that different ISPs have been affected by the conflict, ‘in some cases with a 90 percent drop in traffic’. As of 2 May 2023, Cloudfare further observed that internet traffic was still 30 percent lower than at pre-conflict levels.

Sudanese authorities and the RSF should refrain from any actions that could disrupt internet connectivity. Internet shutdowns pose enormous humanitarian and economic costs. In armed conflicts, shutdowns put many civilians at risk by inhibiting access to vital information about the existence and accessibility of safe areas or the availability of essential supplies of food, medicine, or water. For example, as reported by The Guardian on 10 May, Sudanese doctors are now using social media to reach patients as health facilities struggle to function or close completely in the violence, setting up 24-hour helplines on messaging platforms including WhatsApp. Furthermore, internet disruptions can worsen disinformation and are often used to conceal violations of IHL and human rights, reinforcing a culture of impunity.

A report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights found that ‘given their indiscriminate reach and broad impacts, internet shutdowns very rarely meet the fundamental requirements of necessity and proportionality’. The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression further observed that ‘shutting down the internet is an inherently disproportionate response, given the blanket nature of the act, which blocks multiple other uses of the internet’. IHL does not explicitly protect civilian internet access. However, the basic principles of necessity, distinction, proportionality, and humanity that apply to both international armed conflicts and NIACs prohibit causing unnecessary harm, especially to civilians, which includes unnecessary harm that may be caused by internet disruptions.

What are the responsibilities of internet service providers and telecommunication and social media companies?

Companies – in particular internet service providers and telecommunication and social media companies – need to be aware of their obligations under both IHL and international human rights law, including with regards to issues such as disinformation, the safety of journalists, and free expression.

In its 2006 guide on Business and international humanitarian law, the ICRC states that ‘although States and organised armed groups bear the greatest responsibility for implementing international humanitarian law, a business enterprise carrying out activities that are closely linked to an armed conflict must also respect international humanitarian law’. Given that social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, have become key sources of information for people affected by the hostilities and that both parties to the conflict are instrumentalising social media for their own purposes, these companies must be aware that their actions may be considered to be closely linked to the conflict. They should seek legal advice on their obligations under IHL and engage closely with humanitarian actors, including the ICRC, and civil society in States experiencing armed conflicts. Companies further must consider that freedom of expression continues to apply during armed conflicts and that they should respect international human rights law as stated by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Social media companies have been criticised for their inconsistent responses to situations of armed conflict. Following Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, companies such as Meta, Google, and Twitter announced ad hoc steps, with some allocating significant resources to respond to the situation in Ukraine. Conflicts in Syria, Myanmar, or Ethiopia did not receive the same attention. We have yet to see similar commitments regarding the conflict in Sudan.

More specifically, Twitter’s failure to respond appropriately to reports about impersonation of RSF’s accounts are concerning. It is perhaps indicative – and entirely inappropriate – that Twitter’s Crisis misinformation policy explicitly limits its scope to ‘international armed conflicts’ although the potential harm caused by false information in NIACs is no less grave.

We further remind internet service providers and telecommunication companies of the Human Rights Council’s specific recommendations on internet shutdowns, in particular to take ‘all possible lawful measures to prevent a shutdown that they have been asked to implement from proceeding and, if the shutdown should nevertheless proceed, prevent or mitigate to the extent possible adverse human rights impacts’.

To the extent that some of the relevant companies operating in Sudan are under government control – for example Sudatel is reported to be at least partially government-owned – the UN Guiding Principles provide that the Sudanese authorities have a duty to protect against human rights abuses by business enterprises that they control.  

Conflict exacerbates already deteriorating situation for free expression in Sudan

During times of conflict, freedom of expression is particularly at risk when pre-existing protections are weak. Sudan is no exception. The conflict between the SAF and the RSF has worsened Sudan’s already poor record on freedom of expression with dire consequences for civilians. According to ARTICLE 19’s Global Freedom of Expression Report 2022, freedom of expression in Sudan deteriorated significantly following the 2021 military coup, after just two years of respite during the democratic transition in the wake of the 2019 popular uprising against Omar al-Bashir’s three-decade dictatorship. Anti-coup protests were treated with particular brutality, with Sudan’s security forces killing more than 50 demonstrators in October 2021 alone. Since then, Sudan has also seen an increase in political killings and repression of civil society organisations and the use of cybercrime laws as a tool for repression. Between October 2021 and October 2022 alone, CIPESA (Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa) recorded five incidents of internet disruptions.

Freedom of expression must be restored in Sudan. It is essential to enable journalists to carry out their work, provide civilians with information to understand what is happening and protect themselves, and to prevent impunity for the numerous crimes committed by both parties.