After U.S. President George W. Bush claimed in his 2003 State of the Union address that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had attempted to buy uranium from the impoverished West African country of Niger, outraged journalists and President Mamadou Tandja, who has led the nation since its return to civilian rule in 1999, rallied to the nations' defense. No evidence has been found to support Bush's accusation.
However, President Tandja and Niger's independent press agree on little else. A tense relationship exists between journalists and authorities, who accuse the private media of antagonizing the government. Journalists reject accusations of bias, maintaining that a critical stance is necessary for Niger's nascent democracy. However, many members of the media also acknowledge that financial difficulties and a lack of training make it difficult to stay independent.
In 2003, authorities used Niger's harsh press laws and the Criminal Code to crack down on journalists who criticized the government. In September, Ibrahim Souley, publication director of the private weekly L'Enquêteur, was imprisoned for a month pending his trial on charges of spreading propaganda and "inciting ethnic hatred." The charges stemmed from an article in the paper alleging that businessmen from eastern Niger had complained that the government was awarding too many contracts to a businessman from the west. In October, Souley was given a one-year suspended sentence and was freed the same day. Local journalists rallied to support Souley, but many also acknowledge that ethnicity is a sensitive subject that is often avoided for fear of provoking unrest.
A month after Souley's release, police imprisoned Maman Abou, director of the private weekly Le Républicain, a newspaper widely respected for its independence. The arrest came after an article published in July accused government ministers of using unauthorized treasury funds to pay for government contracts. The article alleged that several contracts had been awarded to government supporters without competitive bidding. The newspaper also published documents from the Public Treasury that reportedly supported the accusations.
In a closed trial in November, Abou was convicted of criminal defamation and sentenced to six months in prison. Neither Abou nor his lawyers were present at the proceedings. Despite a government order forbidding a demonstration on Abou's behalf, thousands of people protested in the capital, Niamey, in mid-November to call for the journalist's release, according to news reports. Local human rights and press freedom groups also condemned Abou's imprisonment.
On December 23, after the defamation charge against Abou was appealed, Niamey's Correctional Court amended the journalist's sentence, changing it from six months in prison to a suspended sentence of four months. However, Abou was kept in prison under preventive detention for a second charge of complicity in stealing and possessing confidential government documents. An appeals court granted him a provisional release in early January 2004.
Throughout 2003, authorities retaliated against media outlets that reported on the country's turbulent past and sensitive ethnic issues. In February, police in the town of Agadez, north of Niamey, shuttered the independent radio station Nomade FM on the orders of Interior Minister Albade Abouba. The station was accused of "inciting rebellion" by airing an interview with two former rebels who criticized the government's failure to implement the 1995 peace accords between the government and ethnic Tuareg rebel fighters. The station remained closed for three weeks before it was given permission to broadcast again.
In September and October, local government representatives, who said they were acting on orders from the president, warned private radio stations nationwide not to broadcast news that could "endanger peace and public order." Journalists said no topics were specified, and at year's end it remained unclear what had provoked the warning.
In September, Niger's High Council on Communications (known by its French acronym, CSC) revoked 15 private radio stations' authorization to broadcast. The move resulted from an internal dispute on the council, which suspended CSC President Mariama Keita because she granted the 15 stations permission to broadcast without seeking the council's collective approval. After Keita was suspended, the CSC asked the stations to resubmit their applications and revoked their authorization to broadcast pending the council's approval. Local journalists' associations criticized the move, arguing that a dispute within a regulatory body should not restrict citizens' access to information. By year's end, the council had approved several of the stations' applications.
Under pressure from human rights groups, Niger's Parliament banned the keeping or trading of slaves in May. However, local journalists said that authorities are reluctant to acknowledge that slavery still exists in the country. In December, police harassed reporters at a ceremony celebrating the liberation of several slaves in Tahoua, a town north of Niamey. According to news reports, police seized equipment from the journalists on the orders of a local government official.