Government blocks reporting on hunger

New York, April 5, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by Niger’s attempt to censor coverage of hunger and malnutrition in parts of the West African state. The government withdrew accreditation last week from a BBC television crew after it reported on hunger in the central region of Maradi and has forbidden officials to talk to the media about the food situation, sources told CPJ.

“We are deeply troubled by this censorship of news which is of pressing concern for the international community and the people of Niger,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “It is shocking that the government of Niger would put its desire to protect its image ahead of the desperate needs of its own citizens. The government must allow full and unfettered coverage of the humanitarian needs of the population.”

The BBC reported Tuesday that the government in Niamey withdrew permission for its team to continue reporting on the humanitarian situation after it broadcast a story on hunger in Maradi, which was badly hit by famine last year. The BBC’s South Africa-based crew said it found many people who faced food shortages, “including one family where parents and children had not eaten for three days.” It quoted local officials as saying international and local media would not be allowed to do stories about the food situation as they did not want that subject covered.

CPJ sources said that government officials insisted that the BBC team had been granted visas to cover bird flu and that they had exceeded their authorization. Government spokesman Mohamed Ben Omar told Radio France Internationale today that any journalist was free to come to Niger but that “telling stories that are not true is another matter.” CPJ attempts to get further comment from the government were unsuccessful.

Last year, authorities sought to repress local coverage of a developing nationwide famine for fear that the news would tarnish the country’s image, according to the Media Foundation for West Africa. In early August, President Mamadou Tandja publicly denied the existence of famine in Niger, despite widespread media reports and a vast international aid campaign.

International agencies are worried that famine could recur in the coming months, but the government says there is no food crisis, according to CPJ sources.