Amal Habani is a freelance journalist and contributor to the Sudanese news outlet Al-Taghyeer. She received the 2018 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Since I was a child, I’ve dreamt of a better Sudan – of a society that enjoys full rights and freedoms. I wanted to be a novelist so I could make that change, and then when I went to Khartoum University, I decided to study communications. I graduated in 1998 and became a journalist, writing short pieces for a weekly magazine called Al Dastoor while holding another job.
Right away, I learned a difficult lesson in how journalists are viewed and what is done with dreamers in Sudan. The manager at my other job fired me in 2000 because of an article I had written about injustice and rights abuses in the private sector, accusing me of targeting the company.
It was the first time I was punished because of my thoughts and writings in a country that the most recent World Press Freedom Index ranked 175th out of 180 countries. And it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
I have stood at the front lines, wielding peaceful words in my fight against a dictatorial regime that doesn’t believe in freedoms or human rights. I’ve been an activist, especially for the rights of women and children, and I helped found the No to Women’s Oppression Initiative, working to stop state violence against women and combat Sudan’s draconian public-order law. For that, I’ve been detained about 15 times in the past 20 years, suffering from all types of abuses and torture.
The first time I was called by the National Intelligence Security Service (NISS) to come to its offices was in 2004, after writing an article about Darfur. This is a too-common occurrence for journalists: The powerful federal intelligence agency sees itself as the editor-in-chief of all newspapers, and under its rule, Sudan’s press freedoms have been restricted and journalists who have protested have been banned from writing in newspapers, which are mostly owned by the security forces themselves.
Four years later, I helped create the Sudanese Journalists Network to fight against NISS’s interventions, but things have only gotten worse. In 2009, the public-order police reported a case against me because of an article I had written rebuking the public-order law for prosecuting women for “indecency.” In 2010, after I established Al-Jareeda newspaper, NISS refused to give us a licence to publish. In 2011, I was jailed for four days because I wrote about activist Safia Ishag, who had spoken out about being raped by three security men while being detained. I was banned from writing for newspapers in 2012, and since then I’ve received death threats, been fired from my day job, and have not been able to find a workplace that would employ me. I tried to make a TV show to raise awareness of human-rights issues as a volunteer at Om Durman TV station, but it has never been released.
It’s even gotten violent. In January, 2018, I was covering a demonstration in Khartoum when a security officer cried: “Amal Habani, the journalist, took photos!” I found myself surrounded by more than 10 men beating me with sticks, striking me in my head and ear with electronic batons, and pushing me into one of their cars. One of the women who was demonstrating, Safia Abdalhameed, tried to stop them, putting her arms and body around me, but they beat her, too, taking us both into the car. Despite my injuries, the security officers refused to bring me a doctor, questioning me about my work and forcing me to spend the night there with both male and female detainees. The next day, they put me with two other women journalists in a very small cell in Omdurman women’s prison, with many other women stuffed in the other cells.
I bled for five days, enduring a bad cough, ear pain and dizziness, before I was taken to the doctor. There was bad food, no contact with the world, and my family was allowed to visit me just once; they did not allow my husband to visit me, as he was also arrested covering the demonstration the day after I was arrested. He spent four days in jail; I stayed there for 34 days, until I was told that the president had granted us amnesty.
Sudan is now changing. Revolution has begun, months of peaceful demonstrations against the regime in the whole of Sudan have led to the end of dictator Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year presidency. The country is still being run by the military council, but freedom, peace and justice are the demands of the millions still striking in front of the Ministry of Defence.
These protests were the hardest time for journalism: one-tenth of Sudanese journalists have been arrested or banned by NISS while covering these events, including Shamael al-Noor, Faisal Salih, Kamal Karar, Eman Osman, Osman Mirghani and many more. But we are optimistic for real change – for civilian government, equal rights, and a state where freedom of expression is fundamental.