More Malian journalists jailed in high school essay crackdown

New York, June 21, 2007—Authorities in the capital Bamako have jailed five journalists in a week—the first arrests in the country since 2003—in the aftermath of an article about a high school essay assignment concerning an imaginary presidential sex scandal.

Director Hameye Cissé of the private weekly Le Scorpion, and directors Birama Fall of Le Républicain, Alexis Kalambry of Les Echos, and Sambi Touré of Info-Matin were jailed in Bamako’s central prison on Wednesday on charges of complicity in an offense against the head of state, according to news reports. The journalists were arrested after their papers reprinted a June 1 story by Info-Matin editor Seydina Oumar Diarra, who was jailed last week.

Diarra’s story, headlined “The Mistress of the President,” featured an interview with a high school teacher and his students regarding an essay assignment about a fictional sex scandal involving an African leader. The teacher told Diarra he assigned the essay in order to make his students explore moral issues.

Director Tiégoum Boubeye Maïga of the private weekly La Nouvelle République said he, too, feared arrest after his paper also reprinted the story this morning, he told CPJ. There was no official reaction from the government, and presidential officials did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

The five defendants are scheduled for trial next Tuesday, according to news reports.

“Rashly throwing journalists in jail for covering a classroom exercise undermines all of the progress that Mali has made regarding press freedom in recent years,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on the authorities to release the five journalists immediately and drop all charges against them.”

About 100 journalists marched today to hand a protest letter to the justice minister, Makan Koné, president of the independent press center Maison de la Presse, told CPJ. Ibrahim Famakan Coulibaly, the president of the Bamako-based Union of West African Journalists (known by its French acronym as UJAO), collapsed and was rushed to the hospital after a tear gas canister exploded near him, according to local journalists. Coulibaly was listed in intensive care late today.