In early August, a military uprising in the eastern Diffa Region by soldiers demanding salary arrears jeopardized Niger’s fragile democracy. The mutiny was the first serious challenge to civilian rule since the election of President Mamadou Tandja in December 1999. Before that election, the country had experienced two coups in three years. Anxious to restore order and avoid instability, authorities used the insurgency as a pretext to crack down on the media and opposition voices.
Niger authorities have had a tense relationship with the country’s emerging independent press during the first three years of democratic governance. Officials regard journalists as antagonists while at the same time seeking to enlist the media as
partners in government attempts to institute reforms and foster social stability. In early January, President Tandja called for more responsible journalism, complaining that
“the virtues of professionalism and impartiality, which are indispensable to the proper exercise of the profession, are lacking in certain sectors of the press.” Tandja instructed journalists that they should avoid “amateurism, improvisation, rampant sensationalism, and inclination to slander.”
Tandja’s deep mistrust of the media was illustrated by his response to the Diffa uprising. During the mutiny, which lasted 10 days, Tandja issued an August 5 decree forbidding “the dissemination by any media of information or allegations liable to jeopardize national defense operations.” Outlets violating the measure faced suspension, closure, or the seizure of their equipment. The decree further stipulated that persons involved in disseminating such reports would be considered accomplices in the mutiny and would be punished accordingly.
In the wake of the uprising, authorities used the decree to arrest Moussa Kaka, director of the private Radio Saraounia and local correspondent for Radio-France Internationale, and Boulama Ligari, the Diffa-based correspondent for the independent Radio Anfani. Though both journalists were accused of broadcasting false information in their reports on the uprising, the fact that they were arrested two weeks after the mutiny had ended led journalists in the capital, Niamey, to believe that the journalists’ detentions were designed to harass and intimidate the press. Both men were eventually released without charge.
Local sources said that both foreign and local correspondents were called into the prime minister’s office and told to temper their reports on the mutiny. Local human rights activist Amina Balla Kalto was accused of “taking sides” in the uprising and was arrested after she criticized the government for continuing to enforce the emergency decree, including press restrictions, weeks after the insurgency had been defeated. Another human rights activist, Bagnou Bonkoukou, was sentenced to a year in prison for “disseminating false information” after he challenged the official death toll in the mutiny during radio interviews. Both activists were detained under the August decree.
Authorities also used the country’s harsh Press Law, which criminalizes several press offenses, to punish journalists who report negatively on high-ranking government officials. In May, police arrested Abdoulaye Tiémogo, publisher of the independent satirical weekly Le Canard Déchaîné, for accusing Prime Minister Hama Amadou of ethnic and regional bias in his nominations of top officials. Though acquitted on that charge, Tiémogo was sentenced in June to eight months in prison for “defamation” after his newspaper accused Amadou of attempting to bribe the parliamentary speaker to retain his premiership. It was the second time in eight months that Tiémogo had been sentenced to prison for defaming a public official.
Despite the draconian Press Law, Niger journalists say that lack of financial resources is the media’s most serious problem. Journalists earn meager salaries, and the government is reluctant to advertise with media that criticize its policies. Poor distribution confines the print media to major urban centers, while small broadcast ranges limit radio stations–the most vital form of mass communication in a country with a 15 percent literacy rate–to regional audiences.
Nonetheless, authorities have helped promote the expansion of the country’ s media, especially radio stations. In 2002, the government adopted a Communications Policy for National Development, which outlines a democratic approach to accessing information and advocates dialogue as an instrument to support development initiatives and to alleviate poverty. With the aid of international donors, authorities opened several community radio stations that provide rural and smaller urban populations with information on development needs.
Abdoulaye Tiémogo, Le Canard Déchaîné
Sanoussi Jackou, La Roue de l’Histoire
Abarad Mouddour, La Roue de l’Histoire
Tiémogo, publisher of the independent weekly Le Canard Déchaîné, was arrested in the capital, Niamey, for comments made on a May 11 radio show he hosted on Niamey’s private Tambara FM. Tiémogo had reportedly invited studio guests and listeners to voice their views on the country’s embattled democratization process.
One of Tiémogo’s guests, Sanoussi Jackou, an opposition leader and owner of the private weekly La Roue de l’Histoire, accused Prime Minister Hama Amadou of ethnic and regional bias in his nominations of high-ranking government officials. Several other government officials widely accused of corruption were also criticized during the broadcast.
On May 18, police arrested Jackou and Abarad Mouddour, La Roue de l’Histoire‘s publisher. Both men were charged with defaming Prime Minister Amadou as well as Niger’s minister of trade, Seini Oumarou. While Jackou’s arrest was partially based on his on-air comments about the prime minister, police detained both him and Mouddour for an early May La Roue de l’Histoire article that accused the trade minister of not repaying huge loans he had taken from a state-operated bank that later went bankrupt. The article reportedly alleged that the minister’s failure to pay off his debt directly contributed to the bank’s collapse.
On May 21, all three journalists were transferred to Niamey’s Civil Prison. On May 24, a judge in Niamey’s Court of First Instance denied them bail.
Tiémogo, Jackou, and Mouddour were ultimately tried on May 28. While Tiémogo was acquitted for lack of evidence, the court convicted Jackou and Mouddour of criminal defamation and sentenced them to suspended four-month prison terms, coupled with fines of 100,000 CFA Francs (US$135) each. The court also sentenced Jackou and Mouddour to pay the plaintiffs a combined sum of 2 million CFA Francs (US$2,700) in damages.
Abdoulaye Tiémogo, Le Canard Déchaîné
Moussa Kaka, Radio Saraounia, Radio-France Internationale
Kaka, director of the private Niamey-based Radio Saraounia and a local correspondent for Radio-France Internationale, was arrested and detained at National Police Headquarters for about 10 hours. He was interrogated about his reports on the early August mutiny of soldiers in the southeastern part of the country.
Authorities were angered by Kaka’s coverage of the mutiny, which they said could have endangered government forces. Niger journalists told CPJ that his detention was likely intended to harass and intimidate him since he was picked up nearly two weeks after loyalist forces had defeated the uprising and was never charged.
During the mutiny, President Mamadou Tanja banned the “propagation of information or allegations likely to be detrimental to the implementation of national defense operations.” Media outlets were threatened with suspension or closure if they violated the ban, which also stipulated that individuals who disseminated false information would be punished.
Boulama Ligari, Radio Anfani
Ligari, Diffa-based reporter for the independent Radio Anfani, was arrested by police, who transferred him to a civilian prison the next day. According to Radio Anfani, Ligari had extensively covered the early August mutiny of soldiers in the southeast of the country. Local sources said that Ligari’s comments on the insurgents angered the government. During his detention, Ligari was accused of broadcasting false information.
At the beginning of the mutiny, rebels occupied Radio Anfani’s Diffa station, which they used to broadcast their demands. Niger journalists told CPJ that Ligari’s detention was intended to harass and intimidate him since he was picked up more than two weeks after loyalist forces had defeated the uprising and was never charged. Ligari was released on August 29.
Ibrahim Manzo, Le Canard Déchaîné
Manzo, editor for the private satirical weekly Le Canard Déchaîné, and Cissé Omar Amadou, the paper’s marketing director, were arrested by police and taken to police headquarters in the capital, Niamey.
Police summoned the Le Canard Déchaîné staffers after an article in the paper’s most recent edition claimed that the army chief of staff had gone to police headquarters to demand the arrest of the leader of the opposition Nigerian Party for Democracy and Socialism, who had recently release® a statement criticizing the country’s leaders and accusing the army chief of staff of playing politics. The release asked the army commander to remain politically neutral.
Manzo and Amadou were released on November 24 without charge. Sources in Niger said that the journalists were released after they promised to publish a retraction of the story in the following edition of the paper, which they did.