Sudanese authorities suspended internet services across the country last September, under the pretext of preventing cheating during the Secondary Education Exams, as per the High Commission of Secondary Education Exams. Since it wasn’t the first incident of internet shutdown of this kind, the Sudanese refused to stand idle this time and took several steps to fight this procedure.

On September 16, 2020, the Sudanese public prosecutor ordered the shutdown of internet services during the exams for the Certificate of Secondary Education, taking place between September 13 and September 24. Indeed, the internet was cut off for 3 hours every day during that period. Nevertheless, the measure did not go without a response. The Consumer Protection Association filed a complaint against telecommunications companies before the Khartoum Court in objection to the internet shutdown and the resulting damages to universities and students following their classes online. Private and public companies, and banks whose transactions were obstructed suffered greatly as well. The 3-hour daily internet suspension resulted in economic losses estimated at 5.7 million dollars per day. 

“Cutting off the internet is a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), namely the right to enjoy scientific advances, given that the ICCPR was ratified in the Constitution of 2005, and then in the Interim Constitutional Declaration,” said Dr. Altayyeb Mukhtar, head of Transparency Sudan organization, to SMEX. Dr. Mukhtar insisted that these violations need to stop, “this requires an independent, active and impartial judicial system. Similarly, the Telecommunication and Postal Regulatory Authority (TPRA) needs to carry out its role autonomously, without external interventions or bias,” Mukhtar added. 

Dr. Tarek Ahmad Khaled, director of a company specialized in economic development in telecommunications and IT in Sudan, agrees with this statement. In a talk with SMEX, Khaled calls upon developing a strategic vision for the telecommunications sector, placing the TPRA under the control of the council of ministers rather than reporting to the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, which was the case last year. He also makes a plea for the sector to be civil-run to  ensure its contribution to the national economy, as opposed to the lack thereof given the military’s control over all telecommunications companies and the TPRA. 

Repercussions of Military Control over the Telecommunications Sector

Some believe that the “despotism” revealed in internet shutdowns is a result of the Sudanese army’s hold on the telecommunications companies in the country. While the situation seems to be changing due to several reasons, not least because of the calls for reform and transparency. Unfortunately, some propose that the military will remain in control of key parts of the sector unless drastic change takes place. 

On September 19, 2019, the president of the Sovereignty Council issued a decision to take over the control of the Telecommunication and Postal Regulatory Authority from the Ministry of Defence. Nonetheless, this decision has failed to end the continued control of the military over internet services or to oppose forced shutdowns. Almost a year later, in August 2020, the Sudanese Council of Ministers called for structural reform, urging the Ministry of Finance to manage the military-run companies.

Telecommunication companies are among those run by the military for so-called “strategic” reasons. They include Sudatel Group whose stated capital amounts to approximately 2.5 billion dollars. Its shares are distributed as follows: the government holds 30% of its shares, local shareholders own 21% and the remaining 49% belong to foreign investors, mainly from the UAE. 

Despite shifting the control over the telecommunications sector to the civil ministry, the military maintains its hold on the sector, and Sudatel Group in particular. This is due to multiple reasons, but mostly because the military had appointed loyalist directors, such as General Engineer Al-Sadiq Jamaluddine Al-Sadiq as the Director General of the TPRA, and General Ibrahim Jaber (current member of the Sovereignty Council) as Head of the Board of Directors of Sudatel Group, according to engineer Omar Abdel Khalek Mahjoub, specialist in telecommunications companies management, who reported to SMEX. 

The military intends to retain its grip on the telecommunications sector “in order to control the freedom of expression in Sudan,” states Mahjoub. “The free exchange and discussion of information would promote political awareness among citizens and uncover areas of corruption. This was evident in the protests against the former regime and the internet shutdowns to cover up the Khartoum massacre,” he added.

Mahjoub considered that amending the Cybercrime Law of 9/7/2020, which imposes severe punishments for information shared on social platforms, “would only serve to tighten the grip on public opinion, control narratives and identify what is allowed and what is prohibited on social and digital news platforms.”

History of Internet Shutdowns in Sudan

Governments in Sudan have long deployed internet shutdowns for political purposes. It has become a tool of oppression and silence against those who oppose their policies, thus depriving citizens of their basic human and digital rights, namely freedom of expression and access to information. 

This measure started with the previous government of Omar Al-Bashir, the deposed president in 2019. In September 2019, the internet was shut down during the protests that swept a number of Sudanese cities following the decision to lift fuel subsidies. Telecommunications companies cited the vandalism that targeted their facilities as the reason behind the communications blackout. 

The previous government had also blocked social platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter during the demonstrations organized against widespread hunger, high cost of living, and the lack of basic necessities such as bread, fuel, cash and medicine. Authorities blocked social platforms and weakened the internet connection across Sudan. Following the fall of the Al-Bashir regime, the Transitional Military Council took power on April 11, 2019, and issued a decision on June 3rd to restrict access to information and conceal its horrific crimes committed against protestors. 

At the time, calls for protests spread widely on social media, prompting the Transitional Military Council to declare that “internet services will not be restored soon.” Additionally, the Council opted to cut off DSL internet services, leaving the country in internet blackout and massive financial losses for 37 days, until internet services were restored on July 9. The Khartoum Court had ordered the service be resumed immediately. Protestors had also insisted that any further negotiations regarding the transitional government in Sudan cannot occur before restoring internet services across the country.

In light of the current efforts to place the telecommunications sector in Sudan under the control of the Ministry of Finance, Engineer Mahjoub believes that, in order to put an end to the military violations of digital and economic rights, the telecommunications dossier should be handed over to civilians to develop digital policies aimed at promoting opportunities and widening the scope of work of telecommunication companies in order to provide internet services to all citizens.”

Feature image via AFP, CC0 1.0

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