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Why do the Sudanese protests get so little news coverage?

The Bashir administration's hold on power is precarious. But you won't see that story on TV news or your newspaper's front page.

By Tom MurphyGuest blogger / July 9, 2012

This June 22 citizen journalism photo provided by the group Grifina, purports to show tires burning during a protest in Khartoum, Sudan.

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•  A version of this post appeared on the blog "A View From the Cave."  The views expressed are the author's own.

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If you have been following the #SudanRevolts hash tag on Twitter and/or read news sources such as Al Jazeera and DAWNS, the story of popular revolts against austerity measures in Sudan would not be new to you. If you happen to be the majority of people, you likely do not know much more about Sudan than Darfur and maybe heard something in regards to conflict between Sudan and South Sudan. The latter group can be excused because most reporting has ignored Sudan.

Carol Gallo provides a nice summary of what lead to the protests in the UN Dispatch a few weeks ago.

With international economic sanctions and the severing of the country’s oil lifeline in January by newly independent South Sudan, Khartoum is running out of cash fast. According to the Washington Post, “President Omar al-Bashir has said the measures are necessary to pay for his country’s conflict with South Sudan and to replace Sudan’s oil revenues. He said Sudan no longer exports oil.”

Khartoum is also fighting expensive, devastating, and unpopular wars in Darfur (in the west), Blue Nile, Southern Kordofan, and the Nuba Mountains (on the border with South Sudan); and is managing to hang onto an increasingly precarious peace with political opposition in the eastern part of the country. Late last year, students in the east protested the rising cost of living and what they alleged to be electoral fraud.

The current Khartoum demonstrations gained enormous momentum on the sixth day, June 22, after Friday prayers, and by Saturday the hashtag #SudanRevolts sprang alive on Twitter on an international scale. Outside Khartoum, protests have also been reported in the main cities of Sennar, North Kordofan, and El Gezira states. Crowd-sourced maps of protests can be found here and here.

Protesters gathered for mass demonstrations on 29 June to lick their elbows in defiance of NCP vice Chairman Nafie Ali Nafie, who famously indicated that overthrowing the regime is a futile as trying to lick one's elbow.

Despite the growing unrest, the coverage has been rather subdued. Some activists are trying to tie it to Arab Spring, but others are a bit hesitant to make that link. Jeffrey Gettlemen wrote in the New York Times last week:

But marching may not be enough. Mr. Voll said that unlike protesters in Egypt, Libya or Bahrain, the Sudanese have not been able to occupy anything, not even a single public square.

“When I see tents and a successful control of significant space, an Occupy movement even for just a day or two,” he said, “I will be more willing to think about regime change in the near term.” 

Maybe that will happen soon. Maybe it will not. But one thing is clear: Come this Friday, and possibly many Fridays after it, Sudanese protesters will be back on the streets continuing in their struggle to lick their elbows.

On the same day, Mohamed El Dahashan questioned in Foreign Policy why the revolution in Sudan is being ignored.

One possible explanation is "revolution fatigue." Newsrooms may believe their readers are tired of the Arab Spring's various manifestations across the Middle East. Yet last Friday, dozens of international TV channels covered Egyptian president-elect Mohamed Morsi's speech in Tahrir Square (which, though important, was not actually an official inauguration speech). Some even broadcast the entire speech live. So perhaps that particular theory doesn't hold water.

I believe there's another problem: For the past two decades at least, the international media has chosen to designate Sudan's people as global villains. Now the journalists are finding it impossible to backtrack on that position and hail the Sudanese as normal people aspiring for a better life.

He continues by pointing out that the situation may be too complex to adequately convey to an American audience.

What's more, these are complex conflicts, driven by history and oil and phosphate and colonialism and proselytism and internal strife and scheming leaders -- and, yes, often by naive followers, too. Volumes are still being written about Sudan's wars, attempting to shed light on what really happened and why.

It was easier to explain Sudan's conflicts with simple dichotomies. The North-South civil war was invariably reduced to "the Muslim North versus the Christian South." I'm sure you've read this sentence before.

When commentators and writers realized that Darfuris were Muslim too, the Darfur genocide became an "Arab versus African" conflict.
But the global community knows next to nothing about the reality of Sudan.

Though there is something to be said for the trouble with complexity, this argument misses the mark. The international media can continue the narrative that Dahashan points out. If we accept his argument that international media makes Sudan out to be villians, how hard would it be to say that the government of Khartoum has continuously disregarded the rights of people to maintain power and this is yet another example of such actions. This time, Sudanese are taking to the streets in protest.

The issue of complexity, if that story is told, remains and is not addressed. That is another conversation. The problem here is a lack of coverage. A compelling story exists, but the problem is likely what Voll points out to Gettlemen in the NYT. In Arab Spring countries there was a single place to show as the center point for the revolution. It is much more complicated in Sudan. CNN can't camp out cameras in one place.

Though I find even that explanation too simple. There must be something more. A few minute clip can make it onto the television news networks to provide an update on Sudan. For some reason it is not a priority. Given the previous revolutions in the continent, it would seem that news outlets would love to cover these stories. Maybe they do, but the inability to gain access to Sudan is the most significant barrier.

Either way, an important event is happening right now and could certainly get a little more play.

Tom Murphy is a former aid worker who blogs about development, aid, and healthcare reform on "A View From the Cave."

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of Africa bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

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