Central African Republic: President of private press group sentenced to prison

New York, April 2, 2007— A criminal court in the Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui, today sentenced to prison the president of a private press group, who has been jailed since March 12 in connection with statements critical of the governmental High Communication Council (HCC), according to news reports.

Michel Alkhaly Ngady—who heads a group of private press editors known by the French acronym GEPPIC—was sentenced to two months in prison and fined 300,000 CFA francs (US$636) on charges of “resistance and disobedience to public authorities and contempt for the laws,” according to the same sources. He was returned to prison, pending an appeal. Today, private newspapers staged a “press-free day” to protest the imprisonment of Ngady, who is also director of the private weekly Les Temps Nouveaux, according to news reports.

The charges stemmed from an obstruction suit filed by the HCC after Ngady’s group opposed its decision in February to suspend for one month the private weekly Le Centrafriqu’Un over an article critical of neighboring Chad, according to CPJ research. GEPPIC and two other local press groups cited irregularities in the membership of the HCC, noting that two members lacked the professional experience required in the government agency’s bylaws. One of the members was a presidential appointee, army Col. Gaston Gambor.

“Far from showing ’contempt,’ Michel Alkhaly Ngady is engaging in the democratic practice of representing the views of his membership on a matter of public importance,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We condemn the prison sentence against Michel Alkhaly Ngady and ask that the appeals court, when it hears all the evidence, overturns the verdict.”

President Francois Bozize signed a law in 2005 that decriminalized most press offenses (including defamation and “insult”), but the charges filed in this case were not considered to be press offenses.