Government cracks down on coverage of rebel attacks

New York, July 13, 2007—Coverage critical of the government’s handling of deadly attacks by an armed group of nomadic Tuareg rebels in northern Niger has led authorities in the uranium-rich West African nation to close a private newspaper and warn others to censor their reporting, according to news reports and local journalists.

The bimonthly Aïr Info, the sole newspaper in the central town of Agadez, about 460 miles (740 kilometers) northeast of the capital, Niamey, was suspended on June 29 for three months by Niger’s state-run High Council on Communications, according to the same sources. In a fax sent to the paper, the council accused Aïr Info of publishing articles “undermining the morale of troops,” director Ibrahim Manzo Diallo told CPJ. The paper’s annual government subsidy of 1.4 million CFA francs (US$3,000) was also suspended.

Diallo was questioned for 45 minutes on Thursday in a police station about registration documents after he relaunched the newspaper this week under the new name Info Aïr, local journalists told CPJ.

The ruling against Aïr Info was linked to articles critical of government security forces in the aftermath of two rebel raids in the Agadez area in June, according to CPJ research. The paper, for instance, called for the resignation of army chief Moumouni Boureïma after a rebel attack on a desert military outpost left 15 soldiers dead and 72 taken hostage. At least 33 government troops have been killed in similar attacks since February, according to Reuters.

State regulators also issued formal warnings to Niamey private weeklies Le Démocrate, L’Evénement, Libération, and Opinion for “directly reproducing news taken from the rebels’ Web sites, without any professional treatment,” High Council on Communications member Mamane Mamadou told CPJ.

“Niger has a history of reacting to criticism by silencing the messenger,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Closing down Aïr Info is a crude attempt at censoring information about the Tuareg rebels operating in the north of the country. We call on the government to lift the ban on the newspaper immediately and allow the press to report freely on the unrest in line with the democratic principles enshrined in Niger’s constitution.”

Radio coverage was not apparently affected by the council’s actions, but newspapers refrained from reprinting full-length rebel communiqués this week, Libération Director Boubacar Diallo told CPJ.

Authorities continued to use censorship and criminal defamation laws to silence the private press in response to accusations of corruption or mismanagement of public resources. Last year, authorities jailed two journalists of private weekly Le Républicain for more than three months in connection with an editorial critical of former prime minister Hama Amadou. Amadou was sacked in March in connection with a corruption scandal in primary education financing first reported by Le Républicain.

Niger has yet to deliver on a renewed January pledge of President Mamadou Tandja to ban prison sentences for press offenses.