President Idriss Déby’s government jailed several journalists and closed a community radio station in an unprecedented assault on the media. Equally unprecedented was the response of journalists, who organized protests, a one-week newspaper strike, and a blackout of all radio news bulletins. The protests, together with international pressure, kept the spotlight on the imprisoned journalists, most of whom were freed in September, when an appeals court ruled in their favor.
The government assault on media freedom appeared to be rooted in Déby’s attempt to remain in power. Faced with ethnic divisions, rebellion in the provinces, and a refugee spillover from the conflict in the neighboring Darfur region of Sudan, Déby’s ruling Patriotic Salvation Movement (MPS) organized a referendum in June to amend the constitution to enable the president to run for a third term in 2006. The government said that the public had approved the amendments, despite protests and an opposition boycott. On June 21, the day before results of the referendum were announced, authorities arrested a newspaper editor and a freelance writer on criminal charges of defaming the president and “inciting hatred.” The next day, a third journalist was arrested on similar charges.
The charges against Garondé Djarma, a freelance contributor to several newspapers in the capital, N’Djamena, stemmed from an opinion piece he wrote for the private weekly L’Observateur that criticized Déby and the referendum. The newspaper’s editor, Ngaradoumbé Samory, was arrested in connection with the publication of an open letter to Déby, written under a pseudonym, that accused the government of mistreating a minority ethnic group known as the Kreda. Authorities had previously detained members of the Kreda and accused them of plotting to overthrow the government.
Michaël Didama, managing editor of the private weekly Le Temps, was charged in connection with articles describing rebel activity in eastern Chad, near the border with Darfur, and an alleged massacre of civilians there.
The journalists were released within three weeks of their arrest, after authorities acknowledged procedural irregularities in their detentions. However, between July 18 and August 8 the three were convicted of all charges and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three months to three years. A week later, a court convicted L’Observateur‘s publication director, Sy Koumbo Singa Gali, of inciting hatred, sentencing her to one year in prison for printing an interview with Djarma in which he accused Arab “janjaweed” members of the Chadian government of conspiring to silence him because of his coverage of the conflict between Arab militias, known as janjaweed, and non-Arabs in Darfur. Djarma received an additional one-year sentence in connection with the interview.
Speaking from jail, Didama called the imprisonments illegal and a “crackdown on the press.” Local journalists’ associations organized sit-ins, demonstrations, and a one-week media strike in August during which private newspapers suspended publication while private radio stations replaced news bulletins with commentary on press freedom.
Officials denied any desire to stifle the press, claiming that the government could not meddle in the courts’ independent decision to convict the journalists.
Following sustained local and international pressure, in late September an N’Djamena appeals court overturned the convictions of Sy, Djarma, and Samory, and reduced Didama’s sentence to time served. The head of the Union of Chadian Journalists, Evariste Toldé, told CPJ that, by citing procedural grounds in its decision to overturn the convictions, “the appeals court verdict has shown that these were arbitrary detentions.” Local journalists told CPJ that the imprisonments had a chilling effect on reporting throughout Chad, with some of them saying that they were now more careful about what they wrote. After the convictions were overturned and the four journalists released, local media associations agreed to submit proposals for legal reform to the government, with the aim of decriminalizing press offenses such as “defaming the president” and revising laws on incitement.
Despite the high level of attention received in the wake of the crackdown, Chad’s print press has minimal influence, due to low literacy rates and limited distribution outside of the capital. Radio is the most important medium, and roughly a dozen private and community radio stations operate in Chad, in addition to the state broadcaster.
In May, the regulatory High Council of Communication (HCC) suspended Radio Brakos, a community station in the remote southern town of Moissala, citing “recurring conflicts between Radio Brakos and administrative and military authorities.” The station’s director, Tchanguis Vatankah, is known for his pointed criticism of local authorities; in 2004, he was detained and severely beaten after Radio Brakos broadcast an interview with an opposition leader as well as programs criticizing the customs service and the police.
According to local sources, the HCC’s decision followed complaints against the station from a local traditional leader and threats from a military commander. The ban was lifted in late August, but the station’s plan to resume regular programming was interrupted when authorities arrested Vatankah upon his return to Moissala from the capital, where he had been staying. Officials announced that they would deport Vatankah, a native of Iran who had been living in Chad for decades. Vatankah was detained in an N’Djamena prison for more than two months while awaiting expulsion. His health, already compromised by the 2004 beating, deteriorated further in prison, according to his wife, a Chadian national.
Local journalists told CPJ that, in addition to government repression, the private media’s severe financial difficulties also threatened press freedom. The HCC cited unpaid broadcasting fees when it ordered the private N’Djamena-based station DJA FM off the air in January. The station was able to begin broadcasting again in February after reaching an agreement with authorities, but, according to station director Zara Yacoub—who also heads the Union of Private Chadian Radios—many local stations are in the same situation, leaving them vulnerable to closure if they offend the government.