Authorities used a repressive press law to jail journalists despite President Mamadou Tandja’s 2004 pledge to abolish prison terms for so-called press offenses. Three journalists spent months behind bars, prompting demonstrations and international outcry. In a country suffering from chronic food shortages, the private press frequently accused public figures of corruption and the mismanagement of public resources. In response, authorities banned an independent newspaper and censored a BBC report on hunger.
On August 4, police arrested Director Maman Abou and Editor Oumarou Keita of the private weekly Le Républicain in connection with a July 28 opinion piece that criticized Prime Minister Hama Amadou. After a one-day trial that defense lawyers called biased, a Niamey court sentenced both defendants to 18 months in prison for defaming the government and publishing false news. In its September 1 verdict, the court also fined each journalist more than 5 million CFA francs (US$10,000). The journalists were freed in November pending a hearing before the Supreme Court of Appeal.
The article suggested that the prime minister was redirecting Niger’s foreign policy to favor Iran and Venezuela after the country came under criticism from Western donors for a lack of transparency in its disbursement of foreign aid. Abou said he believed the government wanted to punish Le Républicain for a series of articles beginning in April that alleged corruption in primary education financing. He said the charges led to a donor audit in June. Niger’s ministers for health and education were fired on June 27, following allegations of corruption made by donors and development partners, according to international news agencies.
Salif Dago, a reporter for the private newspaper L’Enquêteur, was jailed for three months on charges of publishing false information in an August 14 story headlined, “Black Mass in Niamey Cemetery.” The story recounted an alleged macabre ritual involving the killing of a baby by an unidentified man. Convicted and sentenced to six months in prison, Dago was freed in November when an appellate court tossed out the case.
All three journalists were released on November 27, a day after hundreds of people demonstrated on their behalf in the central town of Agadez, according to local media reports. CPJ and other press freedom groups had also called for the cases to be dropped.
The prosecutions ran counter to Tandja’s electoral promise in 2004 to abolish prison penalties for libel and other press-related offenses. A commission appointed in March 2005 to study reform of the 1999 Press Law submitted a report to the government in early 2006 proposing that prison sentences be replaced with fines, according to a government spokesman. The spokesman said reforms may be submitted to Niger’s parliamentary body in 2007, but local journalists remained skeptical.
A journalist had also been imprisoned earlier in the year. In February, Ibrahim Manzo, director of the newspaper L’Autre Observateur, spent 18 days in preventive detention before being given a one-month suspended sentence for allegedly defaming a local businessman in a December 2005 article. Another newspaper director, Salifou Soumaila Abdoulkarim, was placed in preventive detention for almost a month in a separate defamation case in November 2005. Abdoulkarim, the director of the private weekly Le Visionnaire, was released from prison in January after serving a two-month sentence for defaming the state treasurer in an article alleging embezzlement.
Authorities also used the state-controlled High Council on Communications, known by its French acronym, CSC, to censor the press. In June, the CSC banned the independent weekly L’Opinion indefinitely, accusing it of insulting the president and inciting “rebellion,” according to international news reports and Abdourahmane Ousmane, president of the local group Journalists for Human Rights. The accusations stemmed from an article published in mid-June that compared Tandja’s administration unfavorably to that of former military leader Seyni Kountché, who ruled Niger from 1974 to 1987, Agence France-Presse reported. The ruling came despite the CSC’s failure to meet a legal requirement to change its membership to provide journalists greater representation. Eleven of its 12 members were government appointees.
An image-conscious government censored press coverage of hunger and malnutrition. In April, the government withdrew accreditation for a BBC television crew after it reported on the prevalence of hunger in the central region of Maradi. The BBC’s South Africa-based crew said it found many people who faced food shortages. The government claimed the reports were biased, but it has since allowed the BBC to operate in the country, local journalists told CPJ. Officials were forbidden to talk to the media about the food situation in the country, CPJ sources said.
In 2005, authorities had sought to repress local coverage of a developing nationwide famine for fear that the news would tarnish the country’s image, according to the Ghana-based Media Foundation for West Africa. In early August 2005, Tandja publicly denied the existence of famine in Niger, despite widespread media reports and a vast international aid campaign. In November of the same year, he accused the opposition and humanitarian organizations of “exaggerating the food crisis for political motivations.”