President Ange-Félix Patassé spent much of the year cracking down on coup plotters as the media, clustered in the capital, Bangui, struggled to cope with harsh economic realities and a breakdown in the rule of law.
In December 2000, President Patassé warned local journalists their “leisure time” was over. On February 4, 2001, police arrested and tortured Aboukary Tembeley, a writer for Journal des Droits de L’Homme, for publishing an opinion poll showing that most citizens favored Patassé’s resignation.
Political and social tensions, deemed “explosive” in January by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, had been simmering since the withdrawal of most U.N. peacekeepers in March 2000. Dissatisfaction among civil servants, coupled with recurrent showdowns between government and opposition forces, erupted in a May 28 coup attempt during which transmitters for the national radio station were destroyed.
Private and community radio stations stayed off the air for days, with the exception of the Swiss-funded Radio N’Deke Luka, which was noted for its fair and balanced journalism. The newspaper distribution network, greatly affected by the mayhem, was still recovering at year’s end.
In early July, Radio N’Deke Luka’s star presenter, Tita Samba Sollet, was questioned by a state commission set up to probe the failed putsch after soldiers found weapons in a bus adorned with the words “n’deke luka” (bird of good omen). The commission cleared Sollet and the station of any wrongdoing. Radio N’Deke Luka then threatened to sue anyone making unauthorized use of the name, which it shares with many bars, bus services and grocery stores.
The coup attempt, led by former president Gen. Andre Kolingba, was crushed with the help of foreign mercenaries. It was followed by weeks of bloody reprisals, fueled by ethnic rhetoric, that caused many journalists from General Kolingba’s Yakoma tribe to seek refuge abroad. They include Samba Ferdinand of Le Démocrate; Fouquet-Kpolodo of L’Avenir; and Bambou Faustin of the weekly Collines de Bas Oubangui.
The post-coup trauma among journalists was so severe that even members of President Patassé’s Sara ethnic group toned down their criticisms of the regime. The few who dared speak out against the violence, such as editor Maka Gbossokotto of Le Citoyen, were quickly silenced with death threats.
On December 7, state media workers issued a joint statement asking the government to let them do their job without fear of reprisals. The statement lambasted “political censors” who it claimed had eroded even the “smallest margin for free speech” available to journalists. The government journalists also stressed that their allegiance was to the people of the poor and unstable nation, and not to the Patassé regime, which has consistently limited freedom of expression to the president’s cronies.
Aboukary Tembeley, Journal des Droits de l’Homme
Tembeley, who writes for the occasional Bangui-based publication Journal des Droits de L’Homme, was severely beaten at national police headquarters, where he had gone to answer a summons received a day earlier.
The attack came during an hour-long interrogation about a survey he had published in early February stating that 173 of 200 respondents favored the resignation of President Ange-Felix Patasse.
Tembeley lapsed into a coma after being savagely beaten during the course of the interrogation, Amnesty International reported. He was then taken to a cell at the headquarters of the Gendarmerie Nationale, also known as Camp PK12, where he was again beaten and then denied medical care. Tembeley was held for three weeks.
The journalist, who suffers from a chronic heart condition, appeared in court on February 19. He was charged with inciting hatred and violence against a democratically elected institution, as well as with actions that compromise public security and lead to serious political troubles.
Sources present at the hearing said court officials declined to take Tembeley to a state-run hospital and asked him to cover his own medical expenses. He was then sent back to his prison cell.
A fiery critic of the government, Tembeley is also president of the Human Rights Defence Movement (MDDH). His detention contravenes Article 15 of the CAR’s Law No. 98.006 on freedom of communication, which stipulates that journalists have the right to freely investigate all facts which are in the public interest and to bring forward for discussion all actions and declarations of all public and private institutions.
Le Journal des Droits de l’Homme was launched in 1997 and runs general news and reports about MDDH’s human rights monitoring activities.
Tembeley was tried and convicted on March 5. He was sentenced to two months in jail without parole and fined US$215 for publishing a newspaper without a license. On March 6, President Ange-Felix Patasse pardoned Tembeley and ordered his release.