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Sudan: Internet Users Looking for Ways to Beat Blackout

Sudan: Internet Users Looking for Ways to Beat Blackout

Thursday, 20 June, 2019 - 09:15
Mohamed Omar (L) sits with his friends at a cafe in an upscale district of Sudan's capital on June 17, 2019 AFP
Asharq Al-Awsat
In a lush garden cafe in Sudan's capital, a group of youngsters sit eyes glued to mobile phone screens, seeking ways to bypass an internet blackout imposed by army rulers.

"It's as if we have gone back in time -- we are cut off from everything, even from the outside world," said Mohamed Omar, 25, sitting around a wooden table with his friends at the cafe in an upscale Khartoum district, AFP reported.

"Internet is what allows us to know what's happening inside the country and outside," Omar added.

Internet on mobile phones and fixed land connections has been widely cut across Sudan since the violent dispersal of a protest camp outside army headquarters on June 3.

The ruling military council imposed the blackout to prevent further mobilisation of protesters, internet users said.

"They cut the internet so that people can not communicate, to prevent (them from) gathering," noted Omar, who has regularly attended the protests.

Even routine activities like checking social media or booking a taxi through an online app has now become nearly impossible.

"My parents live abroad, the internet was our only means of communication," added Omar.

"Before, we could see each other by video, now I have to (make an international) call," he stressed.

- 'Gross violation' -

At the cafe, some sat around wooden tables, while others typed on their phones and some browsed on their laptops.

Here, an hour of internet costs 50 Sudanese pounds, which is approximately one dollar.

According to AFP, generally across Sudan, the internet is now accessible only through land telephone lines or fibre optic cables, and the connection is erratic.

In one Khartoum mall, customers swarm several mobile shops and cyber cafes that offer rare access.

At the shops' entrances, men and women -- sitting, standing or leaning against the walls -- have their eyes fixed to their mobile phones.

"Cutting the internet is one of the means by the military council to widen the gap between (the protest movement) and the people," prominent protest leader Mohamed Naji al-Assam told reporters this week.

The impact of the blackout was felt Tuesday night when few came out onto the streets, even as protest leaders called for new night-time demonstrations.

Human Rights Watch slammed the blackout as a "gross violation".

"Governments that seek to repress peaceful political opposition have in many instances cut off internet access during times of political sensitivity and crisis," the rights group said in a report on June 12.

"Regarding social media, we see during this period that it represents a threat for the security of the country and we will not allow that," military council spokesman General Shamseddine Kabbashi told reporters last week.

And on Wednesday, the authorities prevented a consumer protection association from holding a press conference on the internet blackout, AFP reported.

Meanwhile, businesses, hit by the blackout, are struggling to keep their services going.

Kamal, an employee of an international travel agency, said his company -- which regularly books tickets for embassies and UN agencies -- has been forced to make bookings through phone calls and text messages, because they can't access the internet.

"We get calls from our clients, then we call our back office in Nairobi. It is they who book the ticket and text us the ticket number," he said.

"We forward the ticket number to the client, who then goes to the airport to take the boarding pass from the airport counter itself."

"If a ticket needs to be modified, we used to do it from our system itself... but now we (have to) send people to the airline office."

According to AFP, other Sudanese travel agencies were shut for several days this month after protest leaders launched a civil disobedience movement, in the wake of the crackdown on protesters.

"Earlier, four, five, six or seven tickets could be booked in one day, but now it takes four days to book just one ticket," said travel agent Hoiam, whose agency was shut during the disobedience campaign.

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