The frontmen in a new war

The big silver sign on the front of the building in Othman Digna Street is so shiny it is almost impossible to read. You have to stand in the shade, lean to one side and squint really hard. Then you see it: “National General Press Council”. But the over-shinniness of the sign is only a minor glitch. What lies beneath is more interesting. The frontmen in a new war.

When I went to the NPC previously, the sign was only in Arabic and the entrance to the institution was tucked away down a little back alley. I had to ask several times where it was. No one seemed to know.

This time, I was on a mission for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, who are seeking sponsorhip from the NPC to run a series of seminars over here. “No problem,” I was told. “No problem whatsoever.” That’s nice.

The NPC, needless to say, is a government body. It has been widely criticised for selectively choosing journalists that can report in this country – because all national journalists need to undergo an exam before they can so much write one word for the media. Now they seem to be warmly welcoming a institution who, let’s be fair, might have less than pleasant things to say about the country.

But I am often struck by how wonderfully open the government seems these days – a far cry from the sordid nineties. The other day, I wrote an article about the Sudan’s census, which was delayed by a week because of squabbling within SPLM ranks. I tried really hard to speak with the SPLM – you might have thought that they at least wanted to justify their position. But no, meetings were set up and cancelled no less than half a dozen times (over the course of a month – I was researching this for a long time). But then the head of the Statistics Bureau, another government body, happily took me into his office to discuss what was happening with the census.

Before that, I did an article on alleged torture in Sudan. I spoke to a few lawyers, who insisted: yes, yes, yes, torture is rampant and should be stopped. Can I see some evidence of torture? Sorry, client confidentiality. Well, can I at least use your name? Nope, sorry. But: torture, torture, torture, definitely a problem in Sudan. When I put all these vague points to Abdul Moneim Osman , the head of the Advisory Council for Human Rights (guess what: another government body), he painstakingly dismissed all of them – and explained why. We even had tea. He wouldn’t let me leave.

I tried to meet with Kamal Omar, who is the lead attorney in a prominent death penalty case (the case of Mohammed Taha, a journalist that was beheaded by a group of extremists for questioning the origins of Prohet Mohammed). He stood me up, though. I waited in the centre of town for five hours, repeatedly calling him and sending him text messages, but he never answered. Later, a former colleague of his suggested that maybe he didn’t want to meet because
of the poor way he has handled the case so far. Omar accuses the government of not allowing a medical examination that could prove the defendents were tortured. But, in reality, he failed to request this examination through the official channels. One would think that he might have liked to have the chance to defend this allegation, rather than see it appear in someone’s blog.

And on it goes. The government speaks. The righteous opposition, who make wild accusations against the government, don’t.

The tide of the propaganda war is turning. Someone in the government has clearly understood of the importance of presenting a good, pleasant face for the government. And these are the frontmen of this new war: oozing charm and charisma and making an awful lot of sense.

Not that I wholeheartedly endorse what the government is doing in this country. I know that they continue to do a lot of bad stuff – and it will take an awful lot of spoonfed propaganda to pull the wool over this hack’s eyes. But so do other’s in the country, probably in equal measure. The difference is what people see.

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