Photograph — Jesse B. Awalt

With protests in Sudan already in its third week, the government of President Omar Al-Bashir is taking steps to prevent more mobilization against his regime. There have been demonstrations against his government almost every day in the past two weeks, and in a bid to end this, the country’s head of National Intelligence and Security Service, Salah Abdallah announced a block on social media sites in the country. “There was a discussion in the government about blocking social media sites and in the end, it was decided to block them,” said Abdallah.

The protests, which started as demonstrations against the increase in the price of bread from about one Sudanese pound to three, have quickly become a call for Sudan’s President Al-Bashir to step down. Al Bashir has been president of Sudan since 1993 after he seized leadership of the country through a coup while still a Brigadier in the army. Since then, he has been elected as president of Sudan three times amidst allegations of corruption and human rights abuse. In 2009, he became the first sitting president to be charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Since protests erupted at the northeastern city of Atbara on December 19, about 40 people have been killed, and more than 800 arrested by security forces. However, the Sudanese Interior Minister, Ahmed Bilal Othman claims only 19 people have been killed, including two security operatives. Sudanese forces have been reported to fire tear gas at protesters, while witnesses say live ammunition was also used. Subsequent protests, mainly spearheaded by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) and headed towards the country’s parliament and state house have been stopped by the country’s security forces, while opposition groups have found a common goal to unite against Al Bashir who has been president for 25 years.

In a country where most of the institutions are under government control, including traditional media, it was only a matter of time before the government stamped its authority on the internet as well.  Of its 40 million people, 13 million are connected to the internet in Sudan. Access to social media was blocked by the country’s communication ministry, especially access to Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsapp. The purpose for this was to prevent online mobilization of protesters and to prevent news from the country to filter into the outside world. This is a tactic from the playbook of the modern authoritarian, where information is currency.

However, many Sudanese have been able to bypass the internet shutdown through the use of the Virtual Private Network (VPN), according to reports from Africa news. Though some Sudanese are unaware of its existence, many protest leaders have been able to use VPNs to mobilize for protests using hashtags such as #SudanRevolts, and #Sudan’s_cities_revolt in Arabic.

“Social media has a really big impact, and it helps with forming public opinion and transmitting what’s happening in Sudan to the outside,” said Mujtaba Musa, a Sudanese Twitter user.

Though Sudan has a long history of protests, with the most recent occurring in 2013, the government has not shut down internet, especially social media, before.

“While Sudan has a long history of systematically censoring print and broadcast media, online media has been relatively untouched despite its exponential growth… in recent years,” an analyst said. With this Sudan joins the ranks of Togo, Egypt, Gabon, Chad, Morocco,  Libya, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Algeria who have shut down the internet as some form of repression.

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