In Niger, court overturns conviction of journalists in defamation trial

New York, February 13, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes Monday’s ruling by an appeals court in the capital Niamey to overturn the conviction of two journalists jailed for nearly four months on criminal defamation charges over an article critical of the prime minister.

An appeals court repealed 18-month prison sentences handed down by a trial court last September against Director Maman Abou and Editor Oumarou Keita of the private weekly Le Républicain, defense lawyer Moussa Coulibaly today told CPJ. The journalists were accused of defaming the government and publishing false news in connection with a July 2006 editorial suggesting a shift in Prime Minister Hama Amadou’s foreign policy in favor of Iran and Venezuela after Western allegations of corruption in the disbursement of foreign aid. Niger’s ministers for health and education were fired on June 27, 2006 following allegations of corruption made by donors and development partners, according to international news agencies.

“We are pleased by the court’s decision to overturn the convictions of Maman Abou and Oumarou Keita who should never have been jailed for reporting on the government’s actions,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said.

The court did not yet publish the official decision, but the verdict may be linked to judicial irregularities on the part of the prosecution, Coulibaly said. The state prosecutor has until Monday to appeal the decision, he said.

“This is a victory for all human rights defenders in the country,” Keita later told CPJ. The journalists were provisionally released from prison on November 27, 2006 after nearly four months of detention. During a phone interview from detention, Abou had told CPJ he believed the government wanted to punish Le Républicain for a series of articles last year alleging corruption in primary education financing. He is expected to return to the Court of Appeals in May in connection with a separate defamation sentence handed down in November 2003, according to Coulibaly. An article alleging the use of unauthorized treasury funds by several government ministers for government contracts had led to his imprisonment for two months, according to CPJ research.

CPJ welcomes news reports of President Mamadou Tandja’s announcement that Niger’s parliament would next month consider a bill to decriminalize press offenses.

For more on these cases, see CPJ’s August 7, 2006 alert.