Narrative control: Who is telling the Sudan crisis story?

Press freedom advocates say that there has been more foreign influence into the narrative of what’s happening in Sudan than is the case internally, and this further fuels the crisis and compromises Africa's efforts to tell own stories, find solutions to own problems.

Narrative control: Who is telling the Sudan crisis story?
Protesters hold a poster with General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo also known as Hemedti, head of RSF. PHOTO | AFP

False narratives could be fomenting more troubles than the war does in Sudan as warring parties and foreign powers continue to mount influence on information ecosystem to achieve their ulterior plans.

Media practitioners in the country say that parties in the crisis have intensified the crackdown on independent media and journalists as they seek to control the narrative as to who is to blame for the crisis and cover up for violations. 

This created information flow vacuum that external powers exploit to paint the crisis in ways that doesn’t reflect the actual situation on ground, observers said.

In fact, press freedom advocates say that there has been more foreign influence into the narrative of what’s happening in Sudan, and this further fuels the crisis and compromises Africa's efforts to tell own story and find solutions to own problems.

As journalists on ground increasingly come under threat, it becomes even difficult to fact-check narratives that have been created and fight resultant  desinformation.

“It's very difficult for journalists on the ground to do any reporting. If you are in Khartoum and you are working on a story you are already a target. If you pull out a camera you are arrested and interrogated immediately. A lot of people have to just quit their job and are trying to flee the country. There is total black out of information coming from Darfur and other parts,” says Tom Rhodes, Journalist, Editor and Founder of Ayin Media, an outlet based in Sudan.

Mr. Rhodes spoke to fellow journalists Wednesday during a virtual session organised by Eastern Africa Editors Society (EAES) to deliberate on rising cases of press freedom violations in the country.

The fraternity says the hurdles faced by journalists in Sudan have implications on the accuracy of information received by the public that follow what’s happening in the country.

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“In fact a lot of foreign media are coming to us now asking for footage or any content that we can give them because they can’t access these areas as well. Other than that, they have to be embedded with the Sudan army to gain access, and doing so poses another problem of objectivity. It causes a lot of distortion to the news,” added Rhodes.

Sudanese are bearing the brunt of a war that broke in April between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group with which the former jointly captured power in a 2021 coup.

Efforts to mediate warring parties have borne no fruits to date, resulting in prolongation of the conflict which so far cost over 400 lives and caused displacements.

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Threats to media and journalists have since seen the nation rank among African countries to watch by media freedom violation monitors amid reports of internet shutdowns, arrest and detention of journalists, as well as physical attacks and violence.

International Press Institute (IPI), an organization that monitors press freedom violations across the globe indicates that RSF soldiers have largely been behind violations meted on journalists.

The organization cites a raid on a journalist’s home in May; two journalists who were manhandled and had their properties stolen, as well as a separate case of a freelance journalist who was caught while filming the aftermath of the fighting in the Western region of Darfur, beaten, and had his phone and belongings stolen even after he identified himself as a member of the press.

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“As IPI, we hope that all these cases can be utilized to support evidence-based advocacy in the region and to demonstrate why it is important not only for the region but also stakeholders across the multilateral system such as the African Union and the United Nations to prioritise the safety of journalists in Sudan at the moment,” said Nompilo Simanje, IPI’s Africa Advocacy and Partnership Lead.

According to the Sudanese Journalists syndicate, journalists who are facing real threats to their lives don’t find it easy to leave the country as they are stopped at checkpoints, authorities confiscate their travel documents and can't cross borders. 

“We need help to urgently evacuate colleagues who are facing real threats to their lives to a safe country until this crisis is over,” says Abdelmoniem Abuedries Ali, the syndicate chairperson.

“At the beginning of the war, some organisations offered to evacuate all journalists, but we refused that because we want them to tell the story. Those facing real threats are the ones we want evacuated to safety.”