Three Years After Al-Bashir Ouster, Sudan’s Internet Freedom Landscape Remains Precarious

By Khattab Hamad |

Over three years since the ouster of long-term authoritarian president Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s ongoing political crisis continues to present challenges for internet freedom in the country. Initial positive reforms initiated by the transitional government led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok have been clawed back since a  military coup in October 2021. The new military government has weaponised laws, continues to institute network disruptions, and is clamping down on civil society organisations so as to consolidate its grip on power and silence critics.

The political situation in the country has had a marked correlation with the state of internet freedom in the north African state, whose record was largely poor even before the crisis deepened. According to the Freedom On The Net 2022 report, Sudan scored 29 out of 100 on internet freedom, thus continuing its classification on the index as “Not Free”. Developments in 2022 signalled a rapid decline from the progress recorded in 2021 and 2020, when the country scored 33 and 30 respectively on the index, up from a lower score of 25 in 2019.

The Cybercrime Law Continues to Repress

One of the measures adopted by Sudanese authorities has been the use of internet-related laws as a weapon for repression. The cybercrimes law, which first came into force in the final days of al-Bashir’s regime in 2018, and its amendments in subsequent years, appear to be aimed at thwarting mass protests and restricting critical opinion of the government and its officials. The most recent amendment to the law, which contains vague provisions, was first announced in April 2022, with some reports stating that it was intended to criminalise acts such as insulting the leaders of the state and undermining the prestige of the state.

On November 2, 2022, the government spokesperson announced that the cabinet had adopted the amendments. The announcement stated that the law was necessary to address the proliferation of information-related crimes and the concealment of their perpetrators through the use of modern computer applications. Also, it claimed that it was necessary to address the shortcomings of the application of court fines that had failed to achieve complete deterrence. The amendment obliges courts to imprison offenders where the victim of defamation or fake news is a governmental public figure.  As of December 2022, the amendment law is yet to be published and is awaiting the final approval of the President of the Sovereign Council.

Article 21 of the cybercrime law provides that: “Whoever prepares or uses the information or communications network or any information means or any applications to publish or promote ideas, programs, words or actions contrary to public order or morals, shall be punished with imprisonment for a period not exceeding six years”. Under article 24, “Anyone who publishes lies or fake news in cyberspace will be punished [with imprisonment of] four years, fined or both”.

Meanwhile, article 25 states that “Whoever prepares or uses the information or communications network, or any information means or applications to defame any person shall be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding six years.” The law also imposes a penalty of up to seven years imprisonment for anyone who obtains data or information that affects the “economy or the national security” of the country, which terms are not defined.

These articles limit access to information and freedom of expression as they fail to provide a clear definition of the acts constituting the offence, are excessive, and use undefined terms such as “public order” and “morals”, which can be interpreted subjectively by security and prosecutorial agencies and applied to punish legitimate expression.


The contentious provisions of the cybercrime law have been used to limit press freedom through the blockage of access to online news websites. In September 2022, the public prosecutor ordered the blockage of the website of the Al-Sudani newspaper, one of the most respected dailies in Sudan, without even notifying the newspaper’s management. The Sudanese Electronic Press Association condemned the order, stating: “We reject prior trials and convictions from any party except the judiciary”. Ultimately, the website was not blocked after the leakage of the prosecutor’s order.

In the same month, Abdalrahman Al-Aqib, a journalist, was arrested by police after publishing an investigative article on corruption at the Ministry of Minerals in a local daily and on his Facebook account. Al-Aqib was charged under articles 24 and 25 of the cybercrimes law for publishing lies and fake news. Following his arrest, the Sudanese Journalists Syndicate condemned the actions of the police. It stated: “Al-Aqib was treated in a humiliating manner, and they did not respect his most fundamental rights, amid delays from the police’s duty officer, so as not to obtain his legal right to the guarantee”.

In both cases, the government’s response was primarily reprisal as opposed to offering counter-responses to the allegations raised in the stories. Notably, authorities did not use the press law against the journalist, perhaps because it prescribes less penalties in comparison to the harsh penalties under the cybercrimes law. The press law does not provide for imprisonment of journalists; rather, it stipulates disciplinary sanctions, such as fines and suspending a journalist from publishing for a specific period.

Network Disruptions

Disruptions to internet access and blockage of social media continues unabated, with authorities justifying them as necessary to ensure “national security and emergency state”. Five have been recorded during the past 15 months.

During the October 2021 coup, the army imposed a nationwide internet shutdown to isolate the protestors from mobilisation to resist the coup. The shutdown lasted 25 days, and after access was restored, some social media platforms remained blocked for two more days. On the one year anniversary of the coup, the authorities shut down the internet for eight hours during a public march organised by pro-democracy groups against the coup. Earlier the same month on October 18, 2022, a regional internet shutdown was imposed in Wad Al-Mahi, a governorate in the Blue Nile region. The shutdown was in response to tribal conflict in several villages in the area. It could not be independently verified when access was restored.

Also, on June 11, 2022, the public prosecutor ordered the shutdown of the internet for three hours on a daily basis, over a 12-day period. The reason given was that it was necessary to prevent cheating during the national secondary school exams. Following the 12-day period, the internet was again disrupted for 25 hours on June 30, 2022, during the “Million Man March” to mark the anniversary of the 2019 massacre of protestors by the military.

Catalogue of Internet Disruptions in Sudan Since October 2021

Start dateEnd dateReasonGeo-scaleShutdown typeDuration
October 25, 202118 November 2021CoupNationwideMobile data25 days
June 11, 2022June 22, 2022ExamsNationwideMobile data12 days (3 hours daily internet-curfew)
June 30, 2022July 1, 2022ProtestsNationwideBlackout25 hours
October 18, 2022Could not verifyLocal conflictRegional: Wad Al-mahi (Blue Nile State)Mobile dataCould not verify
October 25, 2022October 25, 2022ProtestsNationwideBlackout8 hours

These recent incidents mirror Sudan’s long history of instituting network disruptions, rivalled only by neighbouring Ethiopia. Crucially, the disruptions are indicative of the current regime’s bias and disregard for freedom of association and assembly. Three of the internet disruptions (October 2021, June 2022 and October 2022) were in response to protests against military rule. In contrast, the military did not implement any disruptions on October 29, 2022, when the Sudan People’s Appeal Initiative held protests. The initiative comprises supporters of former president Al-Bashir’s ousted regime, who protested in Khartoum demanding that the United Nations not interfere in Sudanese affairs.

Crackdown on Civil Society

The government has also led an onslaught against civil society organisations. For example, on October 23, 2022, the Human Aid Commission (HAC), which is the regulator of non-governmental organisations in Sudan, notified the director of the Sudanese Consumers Protection Society (SCPS) of its decision to cancel SCPS’s registration, seize its assets and properties and freeze its bank accounts inside and outside Sudan. The SCPS has been at the forefront of advocating against network disruptions by pushing for the enforcement of contractual obligations of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to provide services to their customers.

Looking Ahead

The affronts by the Sudanese government on internet freedom and civic space go against its obligations under international human rights law. The design and deployment of punitive laws by authorities to target and silence activists, government critics, journalists, human rights defenders (HRDs), and the political opposition create an environment of fear and self-censorship. Equally, responses such as the deregistration of civil society organisations only serve as a threat to other civil society organisations, of possible sanctions. Lastly, these actions together with internet shutdowns and the repression of digital rights through the cybercrime laws constitute unjustifiable limitations of freedom of expression, assembly, association, access to information, rights of the media, and rights to political participation.

In order to chart a democratic path in the coming years, the Sudanese government must show commitment to uphold media and internet freedom. Policy reforms should repeal regressive provisions such as the cybercrimes law. Sudan should also desist from interrupting access to the internet and social media.

+ Khattab Hamad is a journalist and digital rights researcher who has recently co-founded the Digital Rights Lab Sudan.

Sudan’s Bad Laws, Internet Censorship and Repressed Civil Liberties

By Khattab Hamad and CIPESA Writer | 

On December 19, 2021, the third anniversary of the start of the uprising that overthrew former Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir, protests against the current military rulers rocked the capital Khartoum. Yet these demonstrations are only a small part of the north African country’s challenges, as it remains saddled with a slew of repressive laws that undermine civil liberties, with the digital civic space particularly under attack.

Sudan’s 2019 constitution grants citizens the right to privacy (article 55) and to free expression (article 57) and “the right to access the internet” (article 57(2)). As of December 2020, Sudan had 34.2 million mobile subscriptions while internet subscriptions stood at 13.7 million, representing a penetration of 31%. Sudan has the most affordable mobile internet in Africa and is ranked among the five least expensive countries for mobile internet globally.

Despite the constitutional guarantees and proliferation of technology, a new briefing paper by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) shows that the state of digital rights remains precarious, with the cybercrimes law enabling the military rulers to harass dissenters and critics under the guise of fighting false information online. 

Frequent internet shutdowns remain a constant reminder that the government will go to great lengths to control access to and use of digital technologies for mobilisation. In the last three years, six internet disruptions have been recorded, mostly ordered to thwart public protests against bad governance. The disruptions have had significant economic implications and only ended following the intervention of the courts. 

The brief explores the repressive elements of media and technology-related laws and how they have been used to undermine freedom of expression, access to information and press freedom in the aftermath of al-Bashir’s overthrow. Overall, while there have been some improvements since al-Bashir’s ouster, the current government continues to institute regressive measures such as news website blockages and censorship. The latest power machinations that saw the military stage a coup on October 25, 2021 are making matters worse. 

The Sudanese Professionals’ Association (SPA), which spearheaded the uprising that overthrew al-Bashir, extensively used digital technologies to disseminate news about the uprising and to mobilise citizens to attend protests. The military rulers that succeeded Bashir seem to have realised the power of technology in mobilisation and embarked on continuous disruption of the internet, in addition to instituting other measures to curtail online organising, freedom of expression, and the free flow of information online.

Bashir’s dictatorship initiated internet disruptions in view of public protests calling for his overthrow, but the government that succeeded him has been more prolific in utilising shutdowns to try and shut off criticism and protests. 

The longest internet disruption in Sudan’s history was recorded in 2019 and lasted 37 days. During protests around the time the shutdown was initiated, more than 100 protesters were killed. The latest shutdown started on October 25, 2021 and lasted 25 days. It was instituted after Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan seized control of the government. The shutdown was ended by a court order on November 11.

In July 2021, Sudanese authorities blocked more than 30 local news websites in the run up to protests demanding the resignation of the government, a move that severely undermined the right to expression and access to information.

Meanwhile, the cybercrime law of 2020 punishes publishing “lies” and “fake news” online with a heavy penalty of four years imprisonment, or flogging, or both. This law has been used by the military to silence activists and critical state officials. Even Lt. Gen. Burhan has this year invoked it to bring a suit against a prominent critic. The Press and Publications Law of 2009 equally has repressive provisions and was last August controversially invoked to suspendAlitibaha and Alsayha newspapers.

In 2020, Sudan issued the National security law amendment of 2020, article 25 of which leaves latitude for staff of intelligence agencies to violate citizens’ privacy by giving the Sudanese General Intelligence Service “the right to request information, data, documents or things from anyone to check it or take it” without a court order. Last October, military forces that staged a coup appeared to use this provision to search people’s phones in the streets to delete documentation of human rights violations perpetuated by security forces.

See the policy brief for further details on Sudan’s Bad Laws, Internet Censorship and Repressed Civil Liberties.

How Telecom Companies in Africa Can Respond Better to Internet Disruptions

By Victor Kapiyo |
In recent years, disruptions to the internet and social media applications have emerged as a common and growing trend of digital repression especially in authoritarian countries in Africa. Since 2019, countries such as Algeria, Benin, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), Ethiopia, Gabon, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda and Zimbabwe have either restricted or blocked access to the entire internet.
Internet disruptions are often ordered by governments requiring intermediaries such as telecommunications and internet service providers to slow internet speeds, block commonly-used social media sites, or block all internet access. As internet disruptions become widespread across the continent, it is important to examine the role of internet intermediaries in facilitating or impeding them.
A February 2021 brief by CIPESA shines the spotlight on intermediaries’ responses to government orders and indicates that while the intermediaries facilitate transactions, access to online information and services, and provide platforms for interaction, expression and citizen participation, they are usually caught up in the overarching control of their activities by the autocratic governance of host governments who usually place political control and dominance over the enjoyment of digital rights.
Consequently, intermediaries’ responses to internet disruption orders on the continent have almost always been of quiet obedience. Most have failed to take any steps to push back against government excesses. Airtel (Chad and Uganda), Africell (Uganda), Gabon Telecom, MTN (Cameroon and Uganda), Tigo Chad, and Zimbabwe’s Econet Wireless are among those that unquestioningly acquiesced to censorship orders by governments in compliance with their license conditions but also to safeguard their business interests. They appeared to remain silent even in the face of pressing demands to restore the internet, and in some instances denied having blocked the internet on their networks.
However, other intermediaries such as MTN Benin, Orange Guinea, and Lesotho’s Econet and Vodacom pushed back. These intermediaries shared publicly the government letters ordering disruptions, identified the government officials ordering the shutdowns, and disclosed the basis for the shutdowns. In some instances they engaged with authorities to make the case for maintaining uninterrupted access, resisted or declined to implement unlawful orders, apologized to the public for disruptions, or even compensated their customers for the downtime arising from the disruptions.
While some of these steps are laudable, more needs to be done by local intermediaries to resist future shutdowns, uphold consumer protection, and promote respect for human rights online. Many of these intermediaries seem to lack the backbone to resist or challenge in court the legality of internet shutdown directives. It remains problematic that they seem to put their business interests first, while paying limited attention to the human rights, social and economic implications of internet disruptions.
The CIPESA brief recommends that intermediaries improve transparency reporting; always insist on written instructions and orders from authorities, and promptly make these orders public; expand their partnerships and engagements with civil society and join key platforms that aim to collaboratively advance a free and open internet.
The brief also recommends that intermediaries give users sufficient notice of impending disruptions; engage regulators and push back against licensing conditions (and laws governing the telecoms sector) that are vague, or that could potentially lead to the violation of human rights; and speak out publicly about the harms which network disruptions cause to their subscribers and to the intermediaries themselves.
Further, intermediaries should develop and make public policies that specifically state their position on shutdowns and how they address any shutdown orders from governments; and strive to comply with the UN Business and Human Rights Principles (UNBHR).
The brief also calls upon individuals and the business community to challenge the actions of intermediaries before national, regional and international mechanisms for accountability and compensation of losses incurred as a result of their actions.
See the brief here.

Good News, Bad News: A Story of Internet Shutdowns in Togo And Ethiopia

By Juliet Nanfuka |

The pushback against internet shutdowns in Africa received a boost last month when the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice ruled that the 2017 internet shutdown in Togo was illegal. This followed another win just over a year ago when, in January 2019, the Zimbabwe High Court ruled that the state-initiated internet shutdown that same month was illegal.

However, barely a week after the ECOWAS ruling, Ethiopia  initiated a nationwide shutdown, thus serving a reminder of the persistent threat of internet shutdowns on the continent. Ethiopia has a history of repeated network disruptions, including during national high school exams, but mostly as a means to stifle public protests. Prior to the latest disruption, last year a 10-day nationwide disruption was initiated following the assassination of six top government officials.

The latest disruption comes on the heels of protests triggered by the murder of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular musician and democracy activist. Between January and March 2020, millions of Ethiopians in the western Oromia region were similarly disconnected from the internet and were in the midst of a government-imposed shutdown of internet and phone services and thus could not readily access information, including Covid-19 news.

Ethiopia’s shutdown also bears some traits with the Togolese shutdown of 2017, which was initiated following the announcement of planned anti-government protests by members of the opposition and resulted in internet access being disrupted during September 5–11, 2017. In 2019, the digital rights advocacy group Access Now led a coalition of eight organisations, including CIPESA, in filing an amici curiae (friends of the court)  brief in a lawsuit filed by Amnesty International Togo and other applicants.

The ruling by the ECOWAS court acknowledges that the internet shutdown, in addition to being illegal, was also an affront on the right of freedom to expression, echoing a 2016 resolution by the United Nations on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet. Further, Access Now reports that the court ordered the government of Togo to pay two million CAF (USD 3,459) to the plaintiffs as compensation, and to take all the necessary measures to guarantee the implementation of safeguards with respect to the right to freedom of expression of the Togolese people.

In both Ethiopia and Togo, old habits die hard. Last February, when Togolese citizens went to vote, authorities disrupted access to messaging services (WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Telegram) on election day after the polls had closed. The disruption was imposed despite the call by local and international rights groups urging the government to ensure an open, secure, and accessible internet throughout the election period.

A statement issued by the #KeepItOn coalition in the wake of latest disruption noted that the Ethiopian government has a responsibility to protect freedom of expression and access to information rights of all persons in the country, as enshrined in its national constitution, as well as regional and international frameworks including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, to which Ethiopia is a signatory. It added: “The government should be working to make sure Ethiopians connect to the internet, not the contrary.”

Almost two weeks after the disruption was initiated, reports started emerging that internet was partly restored. Digital rights advocates have noted that disruptions undermine the economic benefits of the internet, disrupt access to essential services such as health care, and often fail to meet the established test for restrictions on freedom of expression and the right of peaceful assembly under the ICCPR.

The network disruption does not help Ethiopia’s reputation which is battling to shake off its autocratic history.  The Horn of Africa country, which was due to hold parliamentary elections this August, has since postponed these plans but continues wading through political and economic reforms, some of which impact on internet access and digital rights.

A study of network disruptions in Sub-Saharan Africa showed that the less democratic a government is, the more likely it is to order an internet disruption. Both Ethiopia and Togo are characterised as authoritarian on the Economist Democracy Index.

The decision by the ECOWAS court marks a notch in the push back against internet shutdowns in Sub-Saharan Africa. Other cases against shutdowns have been lodged in various courts, including in Uganda and Cameroon, and serve as reference points for the necessity of strategic litigation in fighting network disruptions. However, judging from the experience of countries like Ethiopia, which have repeatedly disrupted networks, the strategic litigation needs to be complimented by several other efforts in fighting the scourge of shutdowns in the region and to become a thing of the past.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay 

Togo: #KeepItOn During The Elections

Joint Call |

The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) has joined a call on the Government of Togo to keep digital communications accessible during its upcoming elections.

The country goes to the polls on February 22, 2020, marking the first presidential election since the amendment to the Constitution on term limits. The amendment capped the presidential mandate to two five-year terms. However, it would not apply retrospectively meaning that President Faure Gnassingbe, who succeeded his late father in 2005, can stand for the upcoming election, and again in 2025.  In 2017, internet access was disrupted during protests against the family’s 50-year rule of the country.

Access Now, the #KeepItOn campaign lead states that Togo should follow the footsteps of its neighbors GhanaNigeria, and Senegal who have shown that an open, secure, and accessible internet can foster civic participation during the electioneering processes and beyond, safeguard election results, and promote democracy.

See the full joint call here: English and French.

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