Two years ago, Niger’s media ombudsman judged the local press healthy. In 2001, that assessment seemed optimistic at best. Journalists in this vast, impoverished country remained at odds with the administration of President Mamadou Tandja.
In January, three local media rights groups accused public authorities of “suffocating the press.” The Niger Press Association (ANEPI), the Reporters’ Network for Human Rights (RJDH), and the Union of Private Press Journalists (UJPN) said in a joint statement that colleagues who criticized the government faced threats, illegal arrest, and rigged court cases, and that preventive detention was a common means of censorship.
The statement urged authorities to respect the principles of democracy and obey Niger’s constitution and laws. But Niger’s unimpressed officials kept on filing criminal charges against media outlets that accused them of corruption.
In May, President Tandja filed charges against the independent newspaper Mat-Info for printing allegedly false information about his health. The case was dropped on May 18, but it had created a useful precedent for other senior officials with grievances against the press.
Corruption, meanwhile, continued to take a serious toll on the country’s meager finances. In April, for example, Kenya’s East African daily reported that Niger had spent almost US$60,000 on toilet paper rolls for five senior members of parliament from the governing coalition.
To no avail, opposition leaders called for an investigation into the management of public funds. They were equally unsuccessful in urging President Tandja to order a state probe into the April 1999 assassination of former president Ibrahim Bare Mainassara.
However, the opposition was instrumental in launching Parliament’s own radio station. Billed as “a radio [station] for the expression of democracy,” La Voix de l’Hemicycle (The Voice of the National Assembly) went on the air April 24.
On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, the three leading media rights groups (ANEPI, RJDH and UJPN) asked the state to contribute US$1.8 million to a media development fund. The government declined, citing earlier donations and an expensive military campaign to disarm ethnic Tuareg and Toubou rebels, still active along the border with Libya despite a 1997 amnesty law that was supposed to integrate the rebels into military and civil service.
On October 19, after a Niamey court sentenced publisher Abdoulaye Tiémogo of Le Canard Enchaîné to six months in jail for allegedly defaming agriculture minister Wassalké Boukari, the government argued that prison would improve Tiémogo’s ethics. (Boukari was also awarded US$6,700 in damages.)
Tiémogo was finally released on December 7, four days after the entire private press corps walked out to protest Finance Law 2002, a new tax regime that imposes heavy levies on private news outfits. In addition to an annual registration fee of US$220, private media owners must now pay the Industrial and Commercial Profit Tax, the Value-added Tax, and a so-called Initiation Tax.
Under pressure, the government agreed to apply the new law only to news outlets with more than US$12,000 in capital. Even so, Finance Law 2002 bodes ill for the future of independent journalism in Niger.
Abdoulaye Tiemogo, Le Canard Dechainé
IMPRISONED, LEGAL ACTION
Tiemogo, publisher of the independent satirical weekly Le Canard Dechainé, was convicted of defamation in a Niamey court.
The charges against Tiemogo were brought by Minister of Agriculture Wassalke Boukari and stem from an article that appeared in Le Canard Dechainé in September. The article alleged that Boukari was involved in the embezzlement of more than 3 billion CFA ($US4 million) from the fraudulent sale of gold prospecting permits in the Komabangou area of western Niger, and that he had personally embezzled 200 million CFA (US$280,000).
Several public officials had already been arrested in connection with the gold permit scandal and were awaiting trial at the time.
After the story was published in Le Canard Dechainé, it was picked up by several other newspapers, local sources said.
Tiemogo was sentenced to six months in prison and ordered to pay a fine and damages amounting to 5.1 million CFA (US$7,200). He was remanded to prison directly after the trial.
In separate statements, two journalists associations in Niger, the Union of Private Journalists of Niger and the Niger Association of Independent Editors, condemned the conviction of Tiemogo and demanded that press violations be decriminalized.
Tiemogo was released from prison on December 7, when Boukari decided to drop the charges against him.