• Tandja tightens grip on power, media through constitutional changes.
• Journalists reporting on corruption face government reprisals.
3: Years beyond his elected term that Tandja can serve, according to a constitutional change.
In an audacious bid to maintain power, President Mamadou Tandja pushed through constitutional amendments repealing presidential term limits and tightening his control of the state media regulatory agency. Facing heavy criticism in the run-up to an August referendum on the constitutional changes, the Tandja administration silenced dissent by imprisoning critics, intimidating news media, and issuing an emergency decree dissolving both the National Assembly and the Constitutional Court. Official results showed that the amendments passed with 92 percent approval, but opposition politicians and their supporters had boycotted the vote, which they called a mockery of the constitution.
THE PRESS: 2009
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In the months leading up to the referendum, Niger’s Constitutional Court twice declared that Tandja’s effort to eliminate presidential term limits was incompatible with the 1999 constitution, leading members of the National Assembly to consider impeachment. But Tandja—the 71-year-old former army colonel who was nearing the end of what would have been his second and final five-year term in office—responded in June with emergency decrees that swept away these official obstacles by disbanding both the court and the assembly.
Heavy criticism in the independent press generated a similar presidential response. On July 8, Tandja issued a decree giving the president of the media regulatory agency, the High Council on Communications, full authority to take punitive steps against any news outlet perceived as harming a vaguely defined national security standard, according to local journalists and news reports. The decree contravened normal council procedures that required consultation among the full membership and the issuance of a formal warning before any disciplinary action could be taken, according to legal experts.
The Niger Association of Independent Press Editors, representing 60 newspapers, 23 radio stations, and four television stations, tried to protest the authoritarian measures by imposing a weeklong news blackout beginning July 20. The government, apparently seeking to talk past its critics, responded by inviting journalists from outside Niger to come and report on pending public construction projects that Tandja had made focal points of his bid to stay in power. About 30 foreign journalists from state and private media outlets accepted the invitation.
Many private media outlets chose not to cover the referendum on the constitutional changes. Journalists such as Ali Idrissa, deputy director-general of Dounia, a private radio and television broadcaster, told CPJ that they had been warned by the Interior Ministry and the president of the High Council on Communications not to air interviews with those boycotting the referendum. Moussa Aksar, editor of the weekly L’Evènement, expressed great disappointment in the Tandja administration’s heavy-handed actions. “We chose this job of journalist so that democracy can take hold in this country,” he said. “This takes us backwards.”
The constitutional changes extended Tandja’s term, which was due to expire in December, by three years, and allowed him to seek indefinite re-election. The president further consolidated power on the Constitutional Court and in the National Assembly. The court was reconstituted in July with new presidential appointees, according to news reports. In an October election to replace the assembly, the ruling party won two-thirds of the assembly’s 113 seats. The voting was largely boycotted by the opposition.
The constitutional changes also remade the High Council on Communications into a seven-member body, four of whose members are to be presidential appointees. (The other members are to be nominated by the communications minister and the speakers of the National Assembly and Senate.) The new format gave Tandja majority control of an agency that had previously included 11 members, five of them presidential appointees. “With such [membership], we are certain that many press outlets will be closed,” said Boubacar Diallo, head of the Niger Association of Independent Press Editors. By late year, most of the new members had been appointed according to the new provisions.
The High Council on Communications had assembled a record of repressive actions over the years, but its members had also asserted some level of independence. Earlier in 2009, six members publicly opposed Council President Daouda Diallo’s effort to ban Dounia, a broadcaster known for its favorable coverage of exiled politician Hama Amadou. Speaking to CPJ, Diallo accused Dounia of broadcasting a “call for insurrection” by airing statements opposing the constitutional changes. The six members said in a statement that Diallo had acted improperly by imposing the ban unilaterally. A High Court judge agreed and rescinded the ban against Dounia on July 2.
Tandja’s bid to stay in office exacerbated longstanding tension between the independent press and the government—a strain fueled by years of censorship, criminal prosecutions, and imprisonments of journalists covering sensitive issues. Coverage of corruption, particularly in the management of Niger’s natural resources, drew harsh government responses in 2009.
In early August, just days before the referendum, police questioned editors of eight private newspapers that detailed leaked documents purporting to show that profits from uranium mining had been funneled to President Tandja’s son, Hadia. In a separate case in April, Dounia Director General Abibou Garba was charged with criminal defamation and broadcasting false news after his station aired a debate in which an activist described a uranium deal between the French nuclear energy company AREVA and the government as the “looting of Niger’s resources.” The case was pending in late year.
The arrests undercut Tandja’s public pledges to fight entrenched graft. Niger ranked poorly—115th among 180 countries—in terms of corruption, according to Transparency International’s 2008 public corruption index. The private press regularly reported on alleged mismanagement of public institutions, often at the cost of imprisonment and harassment. In January, Editor Boussada Ben Ali of the weekly L’Action was jailed in connection with a story alleging that the Finance Ministry had awarded a medical supply contract without open bidding. A judge convicted Ali of “divulging information likely to undermine public order” and sentenced him to three months in prison. When Ali’s lawyer, Yahouza Amani, publicly criticized the ruling, he was arrested and detained for 24 hours for “discrediting a justice decision,” local journalists said. In a separate case in September, Editor Ibrahim Soumana Gaoh of the private weekly Le Témoin spent nine days in prison over a story accusing former Communications Minister Mohamed Ben Omar of involvement in an embezzlement scheme at the national telecommunications company SONITEL.
The case of another imprisoned journalist, Abdoulaye Tiémogo, editor of the weekly Le Canard Déchaîné, illustrated the government’s determination to persecute critical journalists. Tiémogo had been arrested at least three times and had gone into hiding in fear of arrest at least once during this decade, according to CPJ research.
On August 1, Tiémogo was detained yet again in connection with stories alleging corruption. In a surprising twist, though, a judge convicted the journalist on an unrelated charge of “casting discredit on a judicial ruling” in connection with a televised interview that discussed the government’s effort to arrest and extradite the exiled politician Amadou, according to defense lawyer Marc Le Bihan. Tiémogo’s health deteriorated in prison; he was hospitalized in August after contracting malaria and collapsing once in his cell, according to local journalists. While recovering at a hospital in the capital, Niamey, he was suddenly transferred to a remote prison in Ouallam, 55 miles (90 kilometers) north of Niamey, his wife, Zeïnabou Tiémogo, told CPJ. Abdourahamane Ousmane, president of the local Network of Journalists for Human Rights, told CPJ that the prison choice reflected the government’s desire to isolate Tiémogo from his family and deter adequate medical attention. CPJ advocated on behalf of Tiémogo, urging the government to provide more humane treatment. On October 26, an appeals court judge reduced Tiémogo’s sentence and set him free, according to local journalists.