Abdel Moneim Suleiman knows what it's like to work as a reporter in hostile territory. As a journalist in Sudan during the country's 1983-2005 civil war, he worked for newspapers based in the capital Khartoum that were sympathetic to the southern rebels and critical of the government of President Omar al-Bashir.
Two years after a peace accord ended that war, he received a phone call from someone in neighboring Chad, saying that he had been offered $222,000 to kill Suleiman and four other journalists for their criticism of al-Bashir and their support for an international force to halt the bloodshed in the western region of Darfur, according to Reporters Without Borders.
In 2008, when Suleiman refused a government request to apologize for his articles about the International Criminal Court's war crimes investigation of al-Bashir, he was arrested, beaten, and locked in a windowless room for more than seven hours.
While working for the opposition newspaper Rai al-Shaab in 2010, Suleiman helped three co-workers write a report about a secret Iranian weapons factory in Khartoum. Following the release of the article, security officials shut down the newspaper. His colleagues were arrested and three of them were sentenced to two to five years in prison, but Suleiman—who was out of Khartoum at the time—escaped.
He fled the country, beginning a life in exile that included stints in Egypt, Sweden and now Uganda. In 2012, he was among six journalists honored with the Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression. While in Sweden, Suleiman connected with a number of media assistance groups that aided him and colleague Hag Warrag in launching Hurriyat, an online newspaper about Sudan based in Kampala, Uganda.
Now 44, Suleiman spoke with Global Journalist's Bell Johnson about life as a dissident journalist in al-Bashir's Sudan and finding freedom in Uganda.
Suleiman: From 2006, there was a censorship...When I sat in front of my computer trying to write my daily column, I always felt like someone was watching and reading. Every night a security officer would come to the newspaper and read everything and pick what they want[ed]...I would write my column and go home and in the morning my column wouldn’t be there because the security man would come at night.
In 2008, one day I wrote my column, like every day. I was sure no one would read my column because the security would come. So I was waiting there until they came in my office. The security came and my editor told me to talk to the security people. He told me they wanted to talk to me about my column and I said: “Why? ... To talk to them about what? … I don’t want to talk to the security. If I do it means I agree [with their censorship]. I don’t agree with what they are doing. So I’m not going to talk to [them]."
On my way home, there were five cars behind me. They [security agents] got inside my car and told me where to drive. They took to me to the security office in Amara [a town near the border of Sudan and Egypt].
When I got inside they started to beat me, and they called me names like spy. I told them: "How? I’m writing in a local newspaper. How could I be a spy? To whom?" They started beating me again and again. They made me stand [near] the wall and [keep] my hands up for four hours. I fell down because I was very tired. They asked me why I wrote a column like this about the ICC [which applied for an arrest warrant for al-Bashir in 2008 for war crimes]. I told them I wrote it because you can’t tell me what to write.
They told me... that [you] will never [again] write a column against the government. I told them that that was never going to happen. They brought a big, TV camera and they put me in the office and brought me a paper and told me to read it to the camera. The paper was about me apologizing about what I’ve written, and I will never to this day, May 2008, I will never write against the government. I will always respect the rules. They said to look at the camera and read it. I told them I was not going to do that. They took me to the garage and left me there.
When I was inside, it was really dark. There was no light, no fan, no air conditioning. I was there for three hours ... After that they came, and they took me at 5 o’clock in the morning. They told me we’re not going to tell you what to write but you write by yourself how you’re going to apologize. I said, “You need to apologize to me. You took me. You arrested me. If there is someone who is going to write, it’s going to be you writing to me not me writing to you.”
They took a stick and started hitting me in the back. Then when I didn’t do what they wanted me to do, they stop hitting me, and they took me to the courts [Suleiman was later released].
Suleiman: They don’t allow you [to write about the military], about what happened in Darfur...about human rights. You’re not allowed to write about the president...They let you write about sports or write about Islamic art or you just write about Shari'a [Islamic law] or you have to write about the Muslim Brotherhood. The people here they need food. They need healthcare. They need to vote. They need to know what democracy is and what human rights are and what’s happening in Darfur.
Suleiman: The last election was in 2010 [South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011]. It was overseen by [former president Jimmy Carter] and he told them it needed to be a fair election. So [al-Bashir] relieved the censorship for three months before the election. It was the first time ever I had it in Sudan. In May after the election -[al-Bashir] won of course-one of my sources told me about the Iranian weapons in a factory built in Sudan. No one knew about it, and no one could write about it. I came to my colleague about it. I told him about the story and he wrote it.
The 2nd of May 2010...it was published. The government was celebrating the election. The same day, my mother died, so I left to bury my mother.
That day, I didn’t know that they came to the newspaper and arrested all the people and closed it. They beat them very badly. So I buried my mother and I ran away. I got a passport and came to Egypt. I started to make an online newspaper with a colleague in Sudan. At that time, Mubarak was still the president, in June 2010. Mubarak said we were not allowed to publish any online newspaper. So we left for Sweden in August 2010 where I met [a media assistance group]. The journalists there helped us...We came to Kampala and established Hurriyat in October 2010.
Suleiman: All the [Sudanese] writers right now, they can't write because there is no freedom. I see now, I'm like a bird. I'm free. I can fly. I can't believe I'm free....I'm writing specifically about what is happening in Sudan. I'm writing to encourage people to go to the streets, to protest, to fight it....[In] Sudan you have to think about what you are writing because there is the security. All these things are no longer in my mind because I am free. I'm free about what I am writing, and I'm free inside me.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the involvement of the group Media Helping Media with the Hurriyat newspaper. Media Helping Media provided training to journalists with Hurriyat but did not help launch the publication.