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Sudan restricts social media access to reign in protests

A man holds his phone with restricted internet access to social media platforms in Khartoum, January 1, 2019. (Photo by Reuters)

Sudanese authorities have blocked access to popular social media platforms used to organize and broadcast nationwide protests against the 29-year rule by President Omar al-Bashir and his administration’s economic policies.

Users of main telecommunications operators in the African country said on Wednesday that access to Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp had only been possible through the use of a virtual private network (VPN).

“Social media has a really big impact, and it helps with forming public opinion and transmitting what’s happening in Sudan to the outside,” said Mujtaba Musa, a Sudanese Twitter user with over 50,000 followers.

NetBlocks, a digital rights NGO, said data it had collected, including from thousands of Sudanese volunteers, provided evidence of “an extensive internet censorship regime.”

Mai Truong of US-based advocacy group Freedom House also said Sudan had a long history of censorship. “While Sudan has a long history of systematically censoring print and broadcast media, online media has been relatively untouched despite its exponential growth... in recent years.”

The National Telecommunications Corporation and some other operators, which oversee the telecommunication sector in Sudan, have yet to comment on the blackout.

But the head of Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service, Salah Abdallah, told a rare news conference on December 21 that the government was mulling imposition of the internet blackout. “There was a discussion in the government about blocking social media sites and in the end it was decided to block them.”

In a country where the state tightly controls traditional media, the internet has become a key information battleground. Sudanese activists have used the social media platforms widely to organize and document the demonstrations. Hashtags in Arabic such as “Sudan’s_cities_revolt” have been widely circulated from Sudan and abroad.

Sudan has been rocked by near-daily demonstrations over the past two weeks. Protesters have set alight ruling party buildings and have called on President Bashir, who took power in 1989, to step down.

There have been calls by human rights groups for authorities in Sudan to investigate the use of lethal force by security forces against protesters.

In Khartoum, authorities say 19 people have died. On the other hand, Amnesty International says it has “credible reports” that 37 people died in the first five days of protests.

On Monday, Human Rights Watch said independent groups monitoring the situation in Sudan had put the death toll at 40.

Sudan’s economy has stagnated for most of Bashir’s 29-year rule. He has also failed to keep peace in the religiously and ethnically diverse country, losing three quarters of Sudan’s oil wealth when South Sudan seceded in 2011 following a referendum.

Inflation is currently running at 70 percent and the Sudanese pound has plunged in value. Shortages of bread and fuel have hit several cities.

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