As the start of your government's "National Dialogue," which opens today and runs through September 20 and is aimed at reconciling the Central African Republic after years of war, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) writes to respectfully remind you of the many challenges facing Central African media, in the hopes that they may be addressed at this forum. This is especially important in light of Your Excellency's plans, according to local and international press, to have a new constitution drafted and approved by 2005.
CPJ is deeply concerned about the state of press freedom in the Central African Republic. One journalist, Michel Ngokpele, publication director of the privately owned French-language daily Le Quotidien de Bangui, is languishing in prison after receiving a six-month sentence on June 26 for defamation and "inciting ethnic hatred," both deemed offenses under the Central African Republic's Press Law.
Police arrested Ngokpele on May 18 in Mbaiki, a city in the southwestern part of the country, after the journalist's article ran in his paper detailing corruption and embezzling allegedly carried out by Dr. Thomas d'Acquin Koyazégbé, head doctor at the Mbaiki hospital. The article also accused a local prosecutor and a police commissioner of sheltering the doctor, hinting that the protection was due to ethnic allegiance, local journalists told CPJ. According to these sources, Dr. Koyazégbé was the only one to press charges.
In July, police harassed two other Central African journalists in the capital, Bangui.
On July 11, police arrested Ferdinand Samba, publication director at the privately owned French-language daily Le Démocrate, and detained him for four days, the journalist told CPJ. The arrest stemmed from a July 8 article by Samba that described an attack in the northern part of the country by rebels with ties to former president Ange-Félix Patassé, who ran the Central African Republic from 1993 to March 2003, when he was ousted by your government.
Faustin Bambou, who is both director of publications and editor-in-chief at the bi-weekly French-language paper Les Collines du Bas-Oubangui, was questioned by police officers on July 7 and 8, after his article appeared on July 3 alleging that a businessman named Mahamat Youssouf was using his connections to members of the government to extort money in exchange for setting up government contracts. Bambou was again questioned the following week, in the office of the General Prosecutor.
Both Samba and Bambou said that they refused to reveal the names of their sources. Several local journalists told CPJ that Your Excellency's communications minister, Parfait Mbaye, intervened on Samba and Bambou's behalf.
While CPJ understands that the Central African press is young, we believe that an open environment with civil--instead of criminal--restitution for press offenses is the best way to foster media professionalism. Furthermore, several local journalists have expressed concern that charges such as "inciting ethnic hatred" are vague and could be used to punish journalists for reporting on matters of public concern.
CPJ wishes to remind Your Excellency of your speech on June 25, quoted in full by state news agency Centrafrique-Presse, in which you stated that "Central Africans are free to express their opinions without fear of imprisonment." Your Excellency also stated that "The final objective of the transition period is peace, security, national reconciliation, and the laying down of a base for durable economic expansion and the organization of free and truly democratic elections." CPJ believes that only an environment that fosters press freedom is one that allows for the full exercise of democracy.
As an independent organization of journalists dedicated to defending our colleagues worldwide, CPJ demands the immediate, unconditional release of Michel Ngokpele, and we call on Your Excellency to ensure that your stated commitment to improving press freedom is fully upheld. Toward this end, CPJ respectfully urges you to revise the harsh Press Law currently in effect in the Central African Republic and decriminalize press offenses in line with international standards of press freedom.
We thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.
Ann K. Cooper