Attacks on the Press 2001: Comoros

Mediators from the Organization of African Unity (OAU) tried to broker a peace plan for the three-island Islamic republic starting in January, after members of the self-styled parliament of the breakaway island of Anjouan asked Colonel Said Abeid, the island’s military leader, to relinquish power.

Anxious to prevent bloodletting, OAU mediators brokered a unity agreement that military rulers and politicians signed on February 17. The signatories agreed to draft a new constitution that would include the rights to free speech and freedom of the press.

In early March, the publisher of La Gazette des Comores, Allaoui Said Omar, was summoned to court for alleged libel of Mahamoud Mradabi, a leader of the Shawiri political party. Mradabi later dropped the case after an unprecedented wave of criticism from local journalists and members of the Comoran diaspora, many of whom expressed their views on an Internet discussion forum run by the bimonthly Comores-Infos.

In mid-April, two other papers, Al-Watan and La Gazette des Comores, also went online, followed in August by Mayotte-Hebdo and Wewu.

August 9 saw the country’s 19th coup attempt in the 25 years since independence. Soldiers on Anjouan toppled Colonel Said Abeid, the military leader. Six weeks later, shooting broke out on Anjouan after the new military junta chose one of its members, Mohamed Bacar, as head of state.

Disgruntled soldiers occupied the premises of Radio Anjouan and inflicted minor damage on the facility to protest alleged neglect by superior officers. On December 19, six people were killed when French mercenaries, acting on behalf of former interior minister Achirafi Said Hachim, raided Comoros’ other separatist island, Moheli, in a foiled bid to overthrow its government. That brought the total number of attempted coups to 20.

On October 11, Cheikh Ali Cassim, head of the private radio station Tropic FM, was freed after fourteen months in jail. Arrested in August 2000, Cassim was charged with illegal possession of firearms. Prosecutors provided no evidence to support the charge, but the military government insisted that Cassim had planned to kill former strongman Colonel Azali Assoumani.

The prosecution’s case fell apart on June 7, when Cassim’s lawyers arrived for a court hearing in the capital, Moroni, to find that the charge sheet was blank and the state’s main witness had not shown up. Comoran journalists have long argued that Cassim was jailed to intimidate the independent-minded Tropic FM.

A month after Cassim’s release, the junta arrested Izdine Abdou Salam, director of Radio Karthala, for airing allegedly defamatory political commentary. He still languished in a Moroni jail at year’s end, weeks after 75 percent of voters chose a new constitution that ended the secessionist crisis (Anjouan and Moheli seceded unilaterally in 1997). Adopted on December 22, the new constitution grants the islands of Grande Comore, Anjouan and Moheli greater autonomy in a redefined federal state.

August 2

Allaoui Said Omar, La Gazette des Comores
Omar Badaoui, La Gazette des Comores

Omar, publisher of the private weekly La Gazette des Comores, and his reporter Badaoui were summoned to the central police station in Moroni, the capital of Comoros, for questioning.

Police summoned the two journalists after Badaoui reported that high-level members of the military government of Colonel Azali Assoumani had been implicated by a police inquiry into a ring of currency counterfeiters.

According to CPJ sources, two high-ranking officials on the president’s staff were later fired after police provided strong evidence linking them to the counterfeiting scheme.

Omar and Badaoui were detained for more than five hours while police pressured them to reveal their sources, which both journalists refused to do. The police recorded their statements and promised to contact them at a future date.

In late October, the two journalists were convicted of defamation and sentenced to suspended six-month jail terms.

November 13

Izdine Abdou Salam, Radio Karthala

Salam, director of programming and a host for the private Radio Karthala, was detained and interrogated by police officers in the capital, Moroni. A journalist contacted by CPJ said the arrest came after participants in a call-in show hosted by Salam made statements that authorities claim defamed ruling officials.

The show, aired during the week of November 5, focused on a constitutional referendum planned for late December. Many callers harshly attacked provisions included in the proposed referendum text.

The charges against Salam are not known, but he remained in prison as of December 31, more than a month after his arrest. Police also seized tapes of the offending broadcast.