August 15, 2000
His Excellency Ange Felix Patasse
President of the Central African Republic
Palais de la Presidence
Bangui, Central African Republic
VIA FAX: +263.616.779
On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of your country’s proclamation of independence, the Committee to Protect Journalists writes to express its grave concern about the recent deterioration of press freedom standards in the Central African Republic.
Central African Republic governments have in the past been relatively tolerant of media criticism, so we are particularly dismayed at the recent trend of prosecuting journalists who report on sensitive matters relating to the presidency.
On August 4, for example, Maka Gbossokotto, publisher of the private daily Le Citoyen, was summoned to police headquarters in Bangui, where he was interrogated for several hours and then arrested. According to CPJ sources, Gbossokotto was detained for “insult” and “defamation” in connection with an article that he had written for the July 24 edition of Le Citoyen.
Gbossokotto’s article commented on a recent letter sent by Prosper N’Douba, the presidential advisor in charge of communications, to several private companies, enjoining each of them to purchase “at least” a dozen copies of Your Excellency’s “new official effigies” at US$225 per pack of twelve. Headlined “Racket of Private Companies Masterminded by Prosper N’Douba,” Gbossokotto’s article sharply questioned the legality of N’Douba’s fundraising scheme and raised doubts about the ultimate beneficiary of the moneys that he collected.
Gbossokotto was held until August 10, when he was conditionally released pending N’Douba’s lawsuit against him for defamation, which is currently awaiting a hearing at the Bangui Court of First Instance.
Prior to this, on March 5, officers from the Police Criminal Division, who claimed to be acting at the behest of the state prosecutor, arrested Cardoso de Meillot, publisher of the private daily Le Democrate, at the newspaper’s offices in the capital, Bangui. The journalist was immediately charged with “insulting the head of state” and “incitement to hatred” in connection with an article in which he had claimed that Your Excellency was not “a man of his words.”
In the same article, Cardoso vigorously condemned official corruption, which he described as rampant and pervasive at all levels of government. He also urged international donors and money-lending institutions not to commit a “crime against the people of the Central African Republic” by granting loans to your government, which, he said, would amount to “financially aiding” Your Excellency.
Cardoso was repeatedly interrogated by both police and secret service agents during his three-week illegal detention. He was conditionally released around March 27. On May 17, a Bangui court found him guilty of “offense to the head of state” and gave him a suspended six-month prison sentence, coupled with a fine of US$145.
On March 7, the state prosecutor’s office issued an arrest warrant for Raphael Kopessoua, publisher of the private Bangui weekly Vouma la Mouche. The journalist was wanted in connection with an article alleging that a local bank manager, Jonas Yologaza, was involved in the “laundering of mafia money” on Your Excellency’s behalf. CPJ sources say that Kopessoua went underground after the warrant was issued. He was charged with defamation of the head of state and, on May 17, sentenced in absentia to a suspended three-year prison term and a fine of US$190.
CPJ believes that Your Excellency’s public statements have largely contributed to the ongoing deterioration of press freedom standards in your country. According to our research, on December 28, 1999, Your Excellency warned the Central African private press that its “leisure time” was now over. You also announced that beginning January 1, 2000, an unspecified set of measures would be adopted “against media organizations and reporters who incite rebellion, tribal hatred, and war.”
CPJ condemns these statements and urges Your Excellency to retract them publicly. We also call on you to ensure that the charges and prison sentences against journalists Maka Gbosssokotto, Cardoso de Meillot, and Raphael Kopessoua are immediately and unconditionally cancelled. Finally, we urge you to reaffirm your commitment to Article 13 of your country’s Constitution of December 1994, which states that “the freedom to inform, express and circulate opinions and ideas through writing, sounds and pictures […] is guaranteed; freedom of the press is recognized and protected by law.”
We thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.
Ann K. Cooper