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A new dawn for Sudanese press freedom?

April 1, 2010

SUDAN-DARFUR/

Hosting a rare debate between Sudan’s much-maligned National Elections Commission (NEC) and opposition parties, the privately owned Blue Nile television was taking a risk broadcasting live to the nation.

In a country where, ahead of April’s first multi-party elections in 24 years, party political broadcasts are pre-recorded and censored, the evening promised to be fun.

As the NEC sat on stage in a hall full of opposition politicians, most of whom accuse the NEC of bias towards the ruling National Congress Party, the panel began a long explanation of the history of the elections and the preceding census.
 
After 15 minutes, nerves began to fray.
  
Even the five-second delay in transmission was not enough to cover up a walk-out sparked by the last democratically elected Prime Minister’s daughter, Mariam al-Mahdi, as it became clear the “debate” was more of a lecture.

After semi-whispered discussions, the other main opposition parties followed her lead, leaving a lonely few government employees, independent candidates and other stragglers to fill up the empty seats up front.

The “debate” was somewhat derailed by the walk-out and the raised voices outside the hall as organisers frantically tried to rescue the programme.

“They are not serious,” al-Mahdi, from the opposition Umma Party, complained as she stormed out of the building.

It looked like a rare moment of unity by Sudan’s opposition politicians, whom many berate for being divided and indecisive, offering Sudanese little alternative to the dominant NCP led by incumbent President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

But the moment was just a moment. After some shouting, some of the politicians trickled back into the hall and the floor was finally opened to questions.

Chaos ensued with the audience taking control of the microphone. But with the strongest opposition voices missing, the questions were weak and repetitive.

Highlights included a question directed to one NEC member: “How much money have you filled your pockets with from the money you made from the training centres?” Mokhtar al-Asam was asked.

Many have complained that training centres affiliated to him and paid for with donor money have won contracts for electoral awareness training or training Sudanese observers.

The debate’s chairman said he would not allow the question, as it was personal. But al-Asam did not deny the accusation and the NEC spokesman said he had been moved from his post as head of the NEC’s training committee to avoid these conflicts of interest.

Another blooper moment came when NEC member al-Hadi Mohamed Ahmed announced live on television that presidential candidate Munir Skeikh el-Din al-Jallab also had a British passport.

While many Sudanese politicians have second passports — many of them British, the former colonial rulers of Sudan — none admit it in public, fearing it could affect their reputations and campaigns. 

The programme organized by the state news agency SUNA and Blue Nile television, (the channel which has broadcast all of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s dozens of campaign speeches live), has hosted all 11 presidential candidates opposing Bashir.

Organizers say Bashir will participate in the programme before the polls begin on April 11. And if he does, his opponents will be watching to make sure he faces tough questions.

But whether he participates or not, it is undeniable that political debates with opposition candidates broadcast live on television are a massive step forward in a nation where the government has kept a tight control over state media and censored private media for more than two decades.

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