The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemns the continued imprisonment of Judes Zossé, publication director of the private daily L'Hirondelle (The Swallow). Zossé was arrested on February 25, two days after the newspaper reproduced an article titled "General Bozizé: the State's Tax-collector."
The article, which originally ran on the news Web site Centrafrique-presse.com, alleged that Your Excellency, who came to power after a March 2003 coup, had personally taken over the collection of state tax revenue in the Central African Republic, prompting two senior Treasury officials to contemplate resignation. Centrafrique-presse.com is a France-based opposition Web site run by former President Ange-Félix Patassé's spokesperson Prosper N'Douba. On February 26, Zossé was transferred from the police station to the N'Garagba Central Prison in the capital, Bangui. The transfer came after a hearing before the Bangui Court Prosecutor, who charged Zossé with "insulting the head of state" and refused a request by Zossé's lawyer to release the journalist pending his trial. The prosecutor has asked for an 18-month prison sentence for Zossé. According to local sources, a verdict in the trial is expected tomorrow.
CPJ is dismayed that Zossé faces criminal charges for an article published in his newspaper, despite repeated assurances from you and members of your administration that you would uphold and protect press freedom. Criminal defamation laws have a chilling effect on journalism and free expression, which are crucial to the establishment of democracy. Zossé's imprisonment also sets a troubling precedent during a period in which Your Excellency has called for national reconciliation and dialogue ahead of elections expected early next year.
As an independent organization of journalists dedicated to defending our colleagues worldwide, CPJ demands the immediate, unconditional release of Judes Zossé, and we call on you to ensure that Central African journalists are able to pursue their work without fear of imprisonment.
We thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.