Attacks on the Press 2000: Chad

ALL YEAR, FIGHTING RAGED BETWEEN GOVERNMENT TROOPS and the rebel Movement for Democracy and Justice (MDJT) in the mountainous Tibesti region. But because of restrictions on the press, there was little news from the battlefront.

International reporters were barred from Tibesti all year, according to the BBC. Chad’s independent media, clustered in the southern capital city of N’Djamena, were actively discouraged from reporting on the conflict. In any case, they generally lack the resources to cover a rebellion taking place several hundred miles away.

While his deplorable human rights record attracted global media scrutiny, President Idriss Deby sought to bolster the country’s economy and international standing by pushing ahead with the construction of a long-delayed, environmentally controversial oil pipeline running 600 miles (1000 kilometers) between Chad and Cameroon.

The threat of prosecution under Chad’s strict defamation laws prompted widespread self-censorship, particularly in state media. Meanwhile, exorbitant newspaper licensing fees continued to stunt the growth of a genuinely independent press. As a result, independent newspapers in N’Djamena often parroted the views of their backers in the government or the opposition.

On December 4, a N’Djamena court acquitted Oulatar Begoto, editor of the private weekly N’Djamena Hebdo, of criminal defamation charges based on an opinion piece that denounced alleged government indifference about attacks on Chadian nationals in Libya. Begoto and the author of the piece, Garonde Djarama, were both charged in early November. Djarama was held in custody until December 4, when the court gave him a suspended six-month jail sentence. Immediately after his acquittal, however, the Criminal Intelligence Department called Begoto in for questioning on separate defamation charges brought by the Libyan ambassador to Chad.

In January, Chadian journalist Daniel Bekoutou received death threats after he published articles in the Senegalese press that bolstered torture charges filed against Chad’s former dictator, Hissene Habré, by a coalition of Senegalese human rights groups on behalf of some 60 alleged victims. On February 3, a Dakar court indicted Habré, whose government is accused of some 40,000 political murders during his tenure (1982-1990). In July, the case was dismissed on the grounds that a Senegalese court had no jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed abroad. Bekoutou, who wrote for the Dakar daily Walfadjri, fled to France in the meantime.

In November, The Washington Post reported that more than 50 people had filed criminal complaints in Chadian courts alleging torture, murders, and “disappearances” committed by Habré’s political police. It remained to be seen whether Deby, who once served as Habré’s chief of staff, would allow these cases to proceed, or whether local media would be allowed to cover the trials.

Daniel Bekoutou,

Bekoutou, a native of Chad working as a reporter for the Senegalese private daily Walfadjri, received death threats after his reporting helped human rights activists bring charges against former Chadian president Hissein Habré in Senegal.

Habré fled to Dakar in 1990, when a military coup ended his eight years in power. In November and December, 1999, Bekoutou published a series of articles in Walfadjri in which he urged Habré’s prosecution for torture, illegal killings, and other human rights violations committed by his government in Chad.

In a criminal complaint filed on January 24 in a Dakar court, a coalition of nine Chadian survivors and human rights groups submitted documentary evidence of 97 political killings, 142 cases of torture, and 100 “disappearances” committed by Habre’s forces. According to sources in Dakar, Investigating Judge Demba Kandji also drew on information contained in Bekoutou’s articles to indict Habré for torture and political murder (Judge Demba dismissed charges of crimes against humanity). Habré, 57, was placed under house arrest following the indictment.

Fearing for his life, Bekoutou left Senegal for France, where he obtained political asylum.

Yaldet Oulatar Bégoto, N’Djaména Hebdo

Bégoto, publisher of the independent weekly N’Djaména Hebdo, was sued for defamation by Libyan ambassador Saleh Grene Saleh. Ambassador Saleh took offense at a November 7 letter to the editor, titled “SOS for Chadians in Libya.” Written by retired civil servant Garondé Djarama, the letter criticized the weak reaction of Chadian authorities to the racially motivated killing of Chadian citizens living in Libya.

On December 4, Bégoto and Djarama appeared before the public prosecutor and were formally charged with defamation. On January 18, 2001, Djarama was sentenced to one month in prison and a fine of US$72, according to Agence France-Presse. Bégoto was acquitted.

Mikael Didama,
Le Temps
Severin Georges Guetta, Le Temps

General Mahammat Ali Abdallah, President Idriss Déby’s nephew, filed a defamation lawsuit against Didama, publisher of the private N’Djamena weekly Le Temps, and staff reporter Guetta.

Abdallah’s suit was based on a recent article by Guetta, entitled “What Is Happening Around Idriss Déby?” The piece alleged that Abdallah and other senior presidential advisors had secretly attempted several coups against Déby.

Abdallah sought damages of US$290,000.

Didama was interrogated on three occasions by N’Djamena crime squad, and was briefly detained on December 21. The trial was scheduled for January 2001. If convicted, Didama and Guetta face up to two years in prison.

On February 1, 2001, Didama was sentenced to a suspended six-month jail term and fined US$35. the court aslo sentenced him to pay US$6,830 in damages to General Ali Abdallah.

Throughout January, soldiers harassed Didama and his colleagues. On January 25, they briefly invaded the offices of Le Temps, looking for Didama, whom they vowed to “catch by any means.” Sources say the soldiers took offense at a report on the ongoing fighting in the northern Tibesti region, which alleged a far greater death toll than officially admitted among government troops fighting rebels led by a disgruntled former defense minister, Yssouf Togomi.