On March 15, rebels under the command of ousted former army commander François Bozizé captured the capital, Bangui, ending President Ange-Félix Patassé’s 10-year rule over this mineral-rich but chronically unstable country. Two weeks later, Bozizé announced the formation of a transitional government with representatives from all political parties, including Patassé’s Movement for the Liberation of the People of Central Africa (MLPC). He promised to organize a constitutional referendum, followed by elections in late 2004.
In a June speech commemorating the first 100 days since the coup, Bozizé also promised to protect free speech, stating, “Central Africans are free to express their opinions without fear of imprisonment. The press is free to criticize … government actions.” Among the many political prisoners released by Bozizé’s troops following the coup was Mathurin Momet, publication director for the private, Bangui-based daily Le Confident, whom Patassé had imprisoned for “threatening state security” and “inciting tribal hatred.”
The local press, weary of Patassé’s often antagonistic relationship with the media, has mostly reacted positively toward the new regime, and some journalists have returned from exile in neighboring countries. Government press conferences, restricted to state-employed journalists under Patassé, are now open to all journalists.
However, Central African journalists still face stark challenges, including a harsh press law that allows journalists to be criminally prosecuted for their writing. Michel Ngokpele, publication director at the private daily Le Quotidien de Bangui, was arrested in May and sentenced in June to six months in prison for defamation and “inciting ethnic hatred.” The verdict stemmed from an article by Ngokpele detailing corruption and embezzlement allegedly carried out by the head doctor at a local hospital. The article accused local officials of sheltering the doctor, hinting that the protection was due to ethnic allegiance. Ngokpele was released on November 26. In December, a group of journalists and editors from the private press urged the government to review laws governing the media and to decriminalize press offenses.
Additionally, several journalists faced harassment because of their work. In July, police officers summoned and interrogated Faustin Bambou, the publication director and editor-in-chief of the private biweekly paper Les Collines du Bas-Oubangui, after he wrote an article alleging that a local businessman was using government connections to extort money. Also in July, police arrested and detained Ferdinand Samba, publication director of the private daily Le Démocrate, after his article described an attack in the northern part of the country by rebels with ties to Patassé. In September, a heavily armed militia leader threatened employees at the offices of the private daily Le Citoyen after the paper published an article arguing that Bozizé does not control the former rebel militias who helped propel the president into power. The government sent guards to protect the office for several days after the incident, journalists at Le Citoyen said, but to their knowledge no disciplinary action was taken against the militia leader.
The largest problems faced by the Central African media are a lack of funding and training, and the insecurity and violence that persist despite the presence of a regional peacekeeping force. While several well-respected newspapers, such as the independent dailies Le Confident and Le Citoyen, are experiencing a renaissance in the newly relaxed political atmosphere in the capital, they are barely distributed outside Bangui. Many other private newspapers are plagued by financial problems that keep them from publishing more than a few times per month. Radio Ndeke Luka, which is managed by the Switzerland-based Hirondelle Foundation, provides an independent counterpoint to state-owned Radio Centrafricaine but does not broadcast beyond the capital. In rural areas, the only private sources of information are small religious and community radio stations.
Even state media are in financial disarray. The government plans to create a state-funded national newspaper and Web site, partly to counter the pro-Patassé news Web site Centrafrique-Presse, which is based in France and run by Patassé’s former spokesperson Prosper N’Douba. However, given the country’s desperate financial situation, journalists doubt that either initiative will be realized anytime soon. With the help of a grant from the Japanese government, the Central African Republic has embarked on a plan to repair broadcasting equipment damaged by age and warfare. In July, programming on state-run television was cut for several days because of technical problems. Local journalists say such cuts are frequent.
In the fall, the government organized a “National Dialogue,” a vast undertaking aimed at reconciling the country after years of conflict. While originally planned to take place over a 10-day period in mid-September, the talks continued well into October as more than 300 delegates, representing diverse political, professional, and social organizations, discussed and made recommendations on national reconciliation; political and diplomatic issues; defense and security; the economy and finances; and educational, cultural, and social matters. During the talks, Bozizé, as well as former leader André Kolingba and the son of the late, notorious dictator Jean-Bedel Bokassa, apologized to the nation for past crimes. Among the recommendations for media development made by the commission on politics and diplomacy were the revision of the Press Law, the creation of an independent media regulatory body, and the inauguration of a communications department at the University of Bangui.