Attacks on the Press 2002: Central African Republic

A year after a failed coup, the government of President Ange-Félix Patassé lifted a nationwide curfew in May. Five months later, in October, several hundred soldiers and civilians were killed in another coup attempt, led by disgruntled army general François Bozize, paralyzing the country for weeks. The Patassé regime prevailed with the help of more than 1,000 mercenaries from the Democratic Republic of Congo and a small fleet of Libyan fighter jets flown by Libyan pilots, who conducted bombing raids on the rebel-held town of Damara, 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of the capital, Bangui.

Most local journalists admitted that they refrained from criticizing the government’s brutal reprisals against alleged Bozize supporters. The few reporters who did question Patassé’s response received death threats or were harassed by regime supporters and officials. On November 14, six soldiers beat Joseph Benamse, a correspondent for The Associated Press and BBC radio, for alleged anti-Patassé bias. At around the same time, Maka Gbossokotto, publisher of the weekly Le Citoyen and one of the country’s most outspoken government critics, told reporters that he had received several threats and that his telephone line was being tapped.

Foreign media also faced increased difficulties in 2002. On November 16, the government jammed the frequencies of the Pan-African radio station Africa Number 1 and the French government-owned Radio-France Internationale (RFI). According to local media, President Patassé found RFI’s coverage of the coup attempt slanted in favor of the rebels. “If you continue, I will remove RFI from the FM dial in Bangui,” Patassé warned, according to RFI’s Web site. Communications Minister Gabriel-Jean Edouard Koyambounou denied any official interference with the broadcasters’ frequencies, suggesting that “heavy rains or thunder” may have caused the jamming.

General Bozize’s rebels also tormented news professionals, prompting widespread condemnation from journalists’ groups. On November 15, three dozen Central African journalists called for the release of Prosper N’Douba, publisher of the weekly digest Centrafrique-Presse and a spokesperson for President Patassé, who was taken hostage by rebels on October 25. N’Douba was freed on December 3.

Meanwhile, a Bangui court sentenced former military ruler Gen. André Kolingba to death in absentia for “attacking state security.” Kolingba, who is living abroad and is believed to have led the May 2001 attempted coup, ruled Central African Republic for 12 years before losing elections to Patassé in 1993. His sentencing came one day before the Central African Economic and Monetary Community Force, a regional peacekeeping force, deployed its first contingent of troops into the country. Observers expect that a number of journalists who fled the country during Kolingba’s rule will return to the republic.