Internet blackout in Sudan?

In response to recent protests, the government of Sudan has instituted tighter state control over both foreign and domestic news sources, particularly online sources. However, rumors of an impending Internet shutdown appear to be unsubstantiated for now.

Students at the University of Khartoum started the protests on June 17 in response to President Omar al-Bashir’s recent austerity measures in which he lifted fuel subsidies and raised taxes. These measures are aimed at addressing the government’s $2.4 billion budget deficit, caused primarily by the loss of oil revenue since the secession of South Sudan last year. Over the past ten days, there have been daily protests in Khartoum and Omdurman, and the revolt has spread to other smaller cities such as Shendi, El-Obeid, and Port Sudan. Some commentators are suggesting that these protests represent the country's own Arab Spring. Throughout the protests, there have been reports highlighting police brutality against protesters through the use of tear gas, baton beatings, and other forms of violence, as well as detainments and arrests.

Since June 22, which is being referred to as Sandstorm Friday, there have been rumors that the Sudanese authorities intend to shut down the Internet to silence online activism and reporting. Egyptian journalist Salma Elwardany, who was reporting for Bloomberg News and frequently updating Twitter regarding on-the-ground events, wrote last Friday:

@S_Elwardany: news that sudan govt might cut off internet #Sudanrevolts

And in anticipation of an Internet blackout, Rodrigo Davies responded:

@rodrigodavis: Dear #Sudan, in case #Bashir cuts off the internet, Speak to Tweet using +16504194196 or +390662207294 #SudanRevolts

However, as Twitter updates from Sudanese informants and footage of ongoing protests have continued to be posted and uploaded online, it appears that these rumors are at least for the moment unsubstantiated. While foreign news reporters have been barred from entering and reporting on the revolts, the government has not yet found a way to fully reign in the online media sphere.

However, arrests of journalists and censorship of news regarding the ongoing protests have been on the rise. On June 26, Salma Elwardany was arrested and deported from Sudan due to her refusal to stop tweeting about the protests.

Iyad El-Baghdadi reported on Twitter:

@iyad_elbaghdadi: Tweep & journalist @linawardani has confirmed that @S_Elwardany was forced to pack up & leave #Sudan immediately for tweeting #SudanRevolts.

And soon after:

@iyad_elbaghdadi: Egyptian journalist @S_Elwardany has been deported from #Sudan for refusing to stop tweeting about #SudanRevolts. Please retweet.

Prominent activist blogger, Maha El-Sanosi, who had written for Global Voices regarding the multiple arrests of Twitter activists, was also arrested in a raid and detained for several hours. After her release, she reported on Twitter that she was fine but that authorities had confiscated her phone and her laptop. The online newspaper Hurriyat Sudan also reported that the Sudanese government has blocked their website since June 25 following coverage of protests in Khartoum, and other netizens have reported blog take-downs. At least one journalist has been reported missing.

The arrests and censorship have not succeeded in silencing protesters. In fact, according to Storyful, #SudanRevolts was among the top 10 tweets on Wednesday, and social media continues to be an important platform for circumvention of state censorship.

While a full-out Internet shutdown is unlikely, the frequency with which Internet activists are now being targeted has instilled a greater sense of urgency among the protesters. The situation in Sudan is expected to intensify between now and June 30, the anniversary of the date the ruling party came to power in 1989.

Follow the #SudanRevolts hashtag on Twitter for live updates.