|Madiha Abdalla, editor-in-chief of al-Midan|
Sudan’s prosecutor of crimes against the state summoned on Wednesday 14 January the editor of the Communist Party’s newspaper, al-Midan, to his offices in Khartoum for interrogation regarding charges filed against her by the country’s militarised security apparatus, the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS). Madiha Abdalla, a journalist and mother, faces charges under four articles of the criminal law: article 21 ‘complicity in criminal action’, 50 ‘undermining the constitutional order’, 63 ‘call for opposition of public authority with violence and criminal force’ and article 66 ‘publication of false news’, in addition to a charge under article 24 of the press and publications law ‘responsibility of the editor-in-chief’. The prosecutor referred the case to court and she was released on bail.
The NISS based its charges on a report in al-Midan quoting Abd al-Aziz al-Hilu, deputy chairman the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement in North Sudan (SPLA/M-N). Al-Hilu issued a statement earlier in the month in support of a protest sit-in in Lagawa of West Kordofan, where hundreds of people remain camped for more than two months in front of the locality headquarters demanding employment opportunities and improvements in public services despite anxious mediation efforts by the local chapter of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and affiliated community figures. Al-Midan offered its readers regular updates on the stubborn sit-in and the demands of its organisers, an issue wholly neglected by the mainstream press. The NISS is evidently keen to silence the already anaemic paper, the last surviving mouthpiece of an opposition party, and next to al-Ayaam a publication where the NISS has no editorial influence and can only confront with the tools of censorship and confiscation.
I came to know Madiha in 2005, during the hiatus of press freedom in the interim period of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed between the government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M). I had started writing for al-Ayaam where Madiha was an established journalist. She wrote diligently on the material manifestations of class deprivation and initiatives of popular action across the country. In contrast to the mainstream preoccupation with the high-fly politics of declaration, Madiha invested her energies in investigating the affairs of the ahali (Arabic for ‘natives’, a term from the colonial dictionary still in use by the educated elite to refer to the mass of the population). She wrote notable reports on the employment of health insurance cards as a tool of political appeasement in suburban Khartoum, and investigated in great detail the operations of the Zakat chamber, a notoriously corrupt institution established with the aim of collecting Muslim alms, an article of faith, and distributing the proceeds to religiously defined recipients including the poor and needy, recent converts to Islam, those heavily indebted while attempting to satisfy their basic needs, unsalaried combatants engaged in jihad and the zakat collectors themselves.
A main focus of Madiha’s work continues to be the multiple modes of exploitation of rural women, the consequences of rural to urban migration and the steady waves of expatriate labour migration on the family and rural livelihoods. In that regard, Madiha is heir to the emancipatory trend championed by the legendary Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim as editor of the monthly Sawt al-Mara (est. 1955), the organ of the Sudanese Women Union. Sawt al-Mara did not survive the demise of the Sudanese left in the early seventies but its pulse can still be detected in Madiha’s journalism and editorial style.
When the veteran editor of al-Midan, al-Tijani al-Tayeb, passed away in November 2011 the bureaucracy of Communist Party named Madiha as his successor, and she energetically took up the position. Veteran party stalwarts probably saw in Madiha a safe bet, an editor who would be trusted not to claim any autonomy for al-Midan. However, she has since been struggling to transform the rather unappealing mouthpiece paper into a publication capable of reaching out beyond the party audience, a challenging undertaking to say the least. For over a year, from May 2012 to June 2013, al-Midan was barred from publication by order of the NISS but Madiha and her team continued to issue the paper online defeating the objective of the order, namely forcing the paper to shut down or accept operation under editorial instructions of the NISS. Madiha’s struggles are multiple, an internal struggle within the Communist Party to secure health editorial space for al-Midan, permanent confrontation with the security authorities and the greater challenge of creating an emancipatory publication under severe financial and professional strain. The charges against Ustaza Madiha carry the death sentence. When I talked to her about it this week, she shrugged off the threat with the dismissive ‘ah’ known to me from life-hardened mothers.