New York, January 31, 2012--The convictions of two journalists in the Central African Republic over their critical coverage of a top official constitute political censorship, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On Friday, a judge in the capital, Bangui, convicted Ferdinand Samba, editor of the private weekly Le Démocrate, on charges of defamation, insult, and incitement to hatred over a series of opinion articles dating back to September 2011 that were critical of finance minister Sylvain Ndoutingaï, according to news reports. Only the incitement charge carried a prison sentence under the country's 2005 press law, the journalist's defense lawyer, Nicolas Tiangaye, told CPJ.
Samba, who has been imprisoned since mid-January based on a complaint filed by Ndoutingaï, was sentenced to 10 months' imprisonment and a fine of 1 million CFA francs (US$1,976), news reports said. The judge also ordered the journalist to pay 10 million CFA francs (US$19,762) in damages to Ndoutingaï and imposed a one-year suspension on Le Démocrate. Tiangaye told CPJ that although he immediately filed an appeal upon hearing the verdict, authorities had already sealed the newspaper's offices and returned the journalist to Ngaragba Central Prison in Bangui.
Another newspaper editor, Patrick Agoundou of the pro-government La Plume, was convicted in absentia on similar charges, according to news reports. The journalist had written articles criticizing Ndoutingaï's management of public finances and had reported on allegations of abuse of power and embezzlement, local journalists told CPJ. Fearing arrest, Agoundou fled the country a few weeks ago, local journalists said.
"The judge's decision to suspend Le Démocrate for one year and the prison sentences given to Ferdinand Samba and Patrick Agoundou were politically motivated in order to silence critical voices," said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. "We call on the appeals court to reverse Samba's jail sentence and urge authorities to free Samba immediately."