CPJ condemns convictions in Malian school essay case

New York, June 26, 2007—Five Malian journalists who covered a high school essay assignment—and the teacher who commissioned the lesson—were convicted today of insulting President Amadou Toumani Toure, according to news reports and local journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the verdicts, which stemmed from a classroom exercise about an imaginary presidential sex scandal, and called for the convictions to be reversed on appeal.

“These spurious charges for covering a school assignment spoil Mali’s record of upholding democracy and press freedom,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “President Toure is credited with helping to establish democracy in Mali, but these charges undermine that record and set a dangerous precedent for the future.”

The journalists’ lawyer, Mamdou Konaté, said he will file an appeal. High security surrounded the closed, one-day trial; as many as 300 people had sought to attend the proceedings, a local journalist told CPJ. 

The case began two weeks ago when Seydine Oumar Diarra, a journalist for the independent daily Info-Matin, was jailed in connection with a June 1 story headlined “The Mistress of the President.” Diarra’s story featured interviews with a high school teacher and his students regarding an essay assignment about a fictional sex scandal involving an African leader. Literature teacher Bassirou Kassim Minta told Diarra he assigned the essay as a way to help his students explore moral issues.

Diarra was sentenced to the 13 days in prison that he already served while awaiting trial. Info-Matin Director Sambi Toure received an eight-month suspended sentence and was fined 200,000 francs (US$400). Minta was sentenced to a two-month prison term and fined 100,000 francs (US$200).

After Diarra was arrested, three publications reprinted the story as a protest—prompting authorities to arrest the director of each publication. Receiving four-month suspended sentences and fines of 200,000 francs today were directors Hameye Cissé of Le Scorpion, Birama Fall of Le Républicain, andAlexis Kalambry of Les Echos.

Most newspapers in Mali refused to print on Monday in protest of the court case. Mahan Koné, president of the Mali press union, Maison de la Presse, said the group expects to issue a statement of protest.