Interview with WAN 2005 Golden Pen of Freedom Winner, Mahjoub Mohamed Salih of Sudan

Mahjoub Mohamed Salih, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Sudans oldest independent newspaper, Al Ayam, was awarded the 2005 Golden Pen of Freedom, the annual press freedom award of the World Association of Newspaper, for his great contribution to a free and independent press in his home country. For over half a century, Salih has confronted obstacles and pursued his work as a journalist and editor in one of the most restrictive media environments in Africa. Salih spoke to WAN about the press freedom situation in Sudan and what has driven him to remain in the profession for more than fifty years.

WAN: How would you describe the press freedom situation in Sudan today?

Mahjoub Mohamed Salih: It has definitely improved noticeably following the signature of the peace accord in Nairobi but this improvement is not yet institutionalized. It is simply the result of relaxation on part of the government. All repressive laws are still in place. They have neither been amended nor abrogated. This means that the government still has the legal right to resort to repressive measures if and when it chooses to do so. What is needed is a complete overhaul of all laws impeding press freedom. We are working towards this end hoping to achieve this goal once implementation of the peace accord starts. The peace agreement envisages democratic transformation under a liberal federal constitution, which includes a Bill of Rights adhering to international norms. At the moment we are engaged in advocacy – with support from civil society organizations – for legal reform that guarantees freedom of expression and a better media environment. We surely need all the support we can get from international press organizations.

WAN: What is your strongest personal memory of the media repression in Sudan?

Mahjoub Mohamed Salih: On a personal level one is tempted to dwell on incidents of harassment, arrests, detention and imprisonment, yet I think these actions are now common practice in all totalitarian countries. Professionally I think the worst experience is that of indirect censorship: when a paper is ordered not to publish except the government version of any story, which the paper knows well is both false and misleading. This puts an editor in a very tight corner. He either publishes the truth with dire consequences, or becomes party to deceit which undermines the creditability of the press, betrays professional ethics and compromises the integrity of the journalist. I have met such a situation several times and always defied such orders and paid for it – arrest, detention, paper confiscation or suspension of license.

WAN: What has been your driving force during all the years you have fought for a free press in your country? 

Mahjoub Mohamed Salih: I joined this profession some fifty-six years back, in 1949. Sudan was then an Anglo- Egyptian colony and the nationalist movement was struggling to achieve independence. The press was, of course, in the frontline of this struggle, which put it in a collision course with the colonial powers for what the colonialists considered incitement against their rule. We were trained under editors and senior journalists who were highly committee to the liberation cause and ready to go to jail to advance that cause. They taught us to fight with perseverance and determination for cause we embrace. I think that training instilled in me a spirit of resistance and resilience – I only hope that we succeed in passing this legacy to present and future journalists in Sudan.

WAN: How have you managed to overcome all obstacles during your professional life? 

Mahjoub Mohamed Salih: I think that journalism is both a risky and inspiring profession. Just look at the number of journalists injured, kidnapped or killed in conflict areas and those harmed, tortured or even assassinated under dictatorships. Yet many people are joining this profession every day. It must be highly inspiring, otherwise no body will join it to face all these risks. This partly answers the question. Moreover I think that in third world countries one expects to face many obstacles in all professions because of poverty, lack of infrastructure and undemocratic practices. So you have to face this ability and device ways and means to deal with it. Gradually one acquires the reality to live with, and the mechanism to surpass the obstacles. Fortunately obstacles do not come all at the same time – at least you have breathing space between one obstacle and the other – that makes life bearable!

WAN: What do you see as the biggest challenge to running a newspaper in Sudan today? 

Mahjoub Mohamed Salih: The Sudanese press is quite an old institution. It is over a century old – it celebrated its hundredth anniversary in 2003. Judging by its age it should have been an established institution. Unfortunately this is not the case. Because of political instability and successive military regimes its capacity has been eroded. It needs capacity building, all round manpower, printing facilities, circulation management and so forth. But we need to prioritise any reform programme. At the moment I think we need to concentrate on journalist training and printing facilities.

WAN: Do you think the existence of free media could have influenced events in Darfur? 

Mahjoub Mohamed Salih: I definitely think so. The proof is simple: all the present attention Darfur is receiving, is due to media coverage of the tragic situation there. Had Sudanese media been allowed to focus on Darfur when the crisis was just starting, a lot of misery could have been avoided and the conflict resolved before it became such a complex catastrophe. Al Ayam started focusing on Darfur two years back but we were stopped, punished and eventually closed down. A complete news black out set in. This allowed the conflict to rage unabatedly.

WAN: How do you see the future of Sudan both with regards to the general political situation and with regards to media and press freedom? 

Mahjoub Mohamed Salih: Sudan is currently at a very important historical juncture. It has successfully negotiated a peace agreement ending twenty-two years of civil war in the southern region only to find itself facing war escalating in the western region and tension mounting in the east. Yet guiding lines for an all-inclusive new deal for the whole country is available in the present peace agreement if it could be developed to cater for the demands of all parts of the country and get all political forces on board. This is not impossible if there is political will and genuine commitment to a peaceful settlement. There is enough incentive as well as enough international support and goodwill, but the challenge mainly lies with the Sudanese political leaders. They have to live up to it or else the future of the whole country will be at stake. I shudder to think of the consequences of failing to live up to the challenges ahead! The future of the press of course depends on a solution of the national crisis. If we embark on a peaceful course, I expect it to play an important role provided its shortcomings are attended to immediately.

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