Attacks on the Press 2000: Niger

NIGER JOURNALISTS WORKED IN RELATIVE CALM during President Mamadou Tandja’s first year in office. After Tandja’s electoral victory in December 1999, a semblance of democratic government returned and flows of much-needed foreign aid resumed. Meanwhile, prospects for independent journalism seemed bright in May, when the country’s media ombudsman praised “the good health” of the press and called for the repeal of laws that restricted press freedom.

But 40 years after gaining independence from France, Niger remains haunted by the military coups that have punctuated its brief history (two in the past three years alone). Last year, there were signs that the Tandja government’s tolerance for independent speech was beginning to wane.

The satirical weekly Le Canard Liberé, known for caustic criticism of the authorities, faced two trials on charges ranging from “insulting a public official” to “undermining the morale of the troops and inciting soldiers to disobedience.” In both cases, the newspaper’s publisher and the accused reporter were found guilty and given suspended prison terms coupled with huge fines.

At year’s end, Sumana Maïga, owner of the independent weekly L’Enquêteur, was serving an eight-month prison term for “disturbing public order” and “spreading false information.” Maïga was arrested in October, along with L’Enquêteur managing editor Dahirou Gouro and reporter Salifu Dago, after the paper reported on a territorial dispute between Niger and Benin over Tete Island, a small strip of land in the Niger River that separates the two countries. (Gouro and Dago were given suspended sentences and fines.)

The development of radio, the most important mass medium in a country with low literacy rates, has been hindered by the state-operated National Communications Observatory’s (ONC) slowness in granting broadcast licenses. In 2000, only two new private radio stations received licenses: Tambara FM, which focuses on women’s and children’s issues, and Saraouania FM. That brought the total number of private stations to six, with dozens of other applications still awaiting ONC approval.

In September, the ONC granted a 10-year broadcasting license to Tenere TV, owned by the same company that runs the popular radio station Tenere FM. The country’s second private television station planned to rebroadcast programs from international networks.

Daouda Traore, Canardo
Abdoulaye Tchiemogo, Canardo

Tchiemogo, managing editor of the Niamey-based satirical weekly Canardo, was arrested and detained on defamation charges by officers of Niamey’s Criminal Investigation Department. Traore, the paper’s editor-in-chief, was arrested the next day.

The two journalists were detained and interrogated after Prime Minister Hama Amadou accused the paper of damaging his public image in an article that described him as a “pyromaniac and coward.” The prime minister filed a defamation lawsuit against the two reporters and their paper.

After being held for two days at a local police station, both journalists were released on bail and then placed under house arrest. Their release came after press freedom groups condemned the journalists’ detention.

On July 4, a Niamey court dismissed all the charges on procedural grounds, apparently because the journalists had been unlawfully arrested and detained. Earlier that week, on June 27, the same court had rejected another defamation lawsuit brought against Canardo by the army chief of staff, based on an article that questioned the army’s ability to respond to a national security emergency.

Dahirou Gouro,
Sumana Maiga, L’Enquêteur
Salifu Dago, L’Enquêteur

Maiga, founder and owner of the independent Niamey weekly L’Enquêteur, managing editor Dahirou Gouro, and reporter Salif Dago were arrested between October 23 and October 25 on unspecified charges arising from an article about a decade-old dispute between Niger and Benin over Tete Island, a small landmass in the Niger River that both countries claim.

L’Enquêteur failed to appear that week, and relatives of the three journalists were denied entrance to the police station where they were held.

L’Enquêteur reported that Benin had deployed troops on Tete Island to evict residents with Niger citizenship, and alleged that Benin was planning to cut diplomatic relations with Niger. Reacting to the arrests in an interview with the BBC, Defense Minister Sabiu Dady Gao accused L’Enquêteur of “insulting” the two countries and “lying” about their respective positions in the dispute.

Both Maiga and Gouro were held despite constitutional guarantees that detention without charge must not exceed 48 hours. CPJ released a news alert about the incident on October 27.

The three journalists were sentenced by the Niamey Magistrates’ Court on November 16. All three were convicted of “disturbing the public order” and of “spreading false information.” Gouro and Dago were each sentenced to a six-month suspended sentence and a fine of 300,000 CFA (US$390). Maiga was sentenced to eight months in prison and a fine of 500,000 CFA (US$650).

Though the journalists appealed the conviction, the appellate court had not ruled by late December. This was because the lower court had not yet published its original decision, although it was legally required to do so within eight days of passing sentence.