Attacks on the Press 2007: Niger

President Mamadou Tandja pledged in January that his government would not obstruct the press, but journalists in Niger faced threats and restrictions as the military tried to repress a budding Tuareg insurgency in the north. In a country that has suffered devastating famines in recent years, food shortages remained another sensitive topic for the press. Local journalists continued to face the threat of jail time for critical reporting under Niger’s 1999 media law, despite a promise in January by then-Prime Minister Hama Amadou that a long-discussed bill to decriminalize press offenses would be introduced in parliament. Amadou resigned in June following a parliamentary no-confidence vote, and his successor, Seyni Oumarou, did not indicate whether he would follow up on the issue.

In February, an appeals court cleared senior journalists Maman Abou and Oumarou Keita, who run the Niamey-based weekly Le Républicain, of criminal charges brought in 2006. The two were arrested in August of that year and spent four months in jail in connection with an editorial suggesting the government may have tilted foreign policy toward Iran and Venezuela after Western donors alleged corruption involving foreign aid disbursement. Abou has been a frequent target of government ire due to Le Républicain‘s reporting; during a phone interview from detention, Abou told CPJ he believed the government wanted to punish the newspaper for a series of articles alleging corruption in primary education financing. He continued to face criminal charges in connection with a defamation sentence handed down in November 2003, for which he had already served two months in prison.

Any optimism arising from Abou’s court victory was quickly stemmed by a government crackdown on an insurgency launched in early 2007 by members of the nomadic Tuareg ethnic group in the northern region of Agadez. The Mouvement Nigérien pour la Justice (MNJ) released a list of demands in May, including the appointment of MNJ officials to key positions in the state security forces, government agencies, and mining operations, as well as greater revenue sharing from natural resources. (While Niger is one of the poorest countries on earth, its northern regions are rich in uranium, oil, gold, and other valuable commodities.) By midyear, more than 40 soldiers had been killed and dozens captured in confrontations with the rebels, according to international news reports, prompting Tandja to declare a “state of alert” in Agadez in August. Many MNJ members are believed to be military deserters, signaling the failure of a 1995 peace deal that ended a previous Tuareg insurgency and incorporated former rebels into the security forces.

The government refused to recognize the MNJ, claiming that its fighters were “bandits” and smugglers. As MNJ attacks grew more frequent and sophisticated, authorities moved to limit media coverage of the rebellion through a combination of intimidation and outright censorship. In June, the High Council on Communications (known by its French acronym, CSC) instructed local journalists not to report on the insurgency, while Communications Ministry officials told The Associated Press in July that foreign journalists were barred from Agadez. Local journalists largely responded with self-censorship, though the international press continued to report regular statements released by the MNJ through its Web site and via satellite telephone interviews with journalists.

The CSC banned the Agadez-based bimonthly newspaper Aïr Info in June, accusing it of undermining troop morale. The newspaper’s annual government subsidy of 1.4 million CFA francs (US$3,000) was also frozen. The ban was linked to articles on two rebel raids in the Agadez area in June; one story called for the resignation of army chief Gen. Moumouni Boureïma after an MNJ attack on a desert military outpost left 15 soldiers dead and 72 hostage. The council also issued warnings to four other local papers for their coverage of the MNJ. “The CSC decision is a grave threat to freedom of information because it aims simply to intimidate us, to stop us from covering the events in the north,” Ahmed Raliou, director of the Agadez-based private radio station Sahara, told Reuters.

Among Niger’s impoverished and largely illiterate population, radio broadcasts are far more influential than print media. Radio France Internationale (RFI), whose news reports are relied upon widely, quickly became another target of government intimidation. On July 19, the CSC suspended the station’s FM broadcasts for a month, accusing the station of bias toward the Tuareg movement. CPJ sources linked the suspension to an interview aired on July 18 with army-officer-turned-rebel Kindo Zada. CSC President Daouda Diallo accused RFI of presenting Zada as “an army deserter,” calling him instead a “runaway criminal.” RFI stood by its reporting in a written statement protesting the council’s decision.

On August 28, the CSC banned the broadcast of live debates on the northern crisis, after the nationwide network Radio Saraounya FM broadcast a live panel discussion in which some participants criticized the government’s handling of the insurgency. Opposition leader Issoufou Bachar, who denounced Tandja’s August decree granting security forces blanket powers to combat the rebels, was detained for 48 hours after speaking on Radio Saraounya, Director Moussa Kaka told CPJ. CSC chief Diallo told CPJ that broadcasters were free to air debates and opinions as long as they were not live.

On September 20, police arrested Kaka, a veteran reporter for RFI as well as head of Radio Saraounya, on accusations of “conniving” with rebels and “endangering state security,” citing telephone conversations between the journalist and the rebel leadership. Kaka had done exclusive interviews with rebel leaders and taken photos that were reprinted in several newspapers in the capital, Niamey. He had previously been threatened by Gen. Boureïma in connection with his reporting, according to international news reports.

On October 9, Aïr Info Director Ibrahim Manzo Diallo was arrested by plainclothes police at Niamey’s airport. A court in Agadez charged Diallo the next month with criminal conspiracy over his alleged involvement in an antigovernment demonstration, according to local journalists and Diallo’s lawyer, Moussa Coulibaly. Local journalists believed the arrest was linked to a September 26 Aïr Info report listing 20 people suspected of rebel links, according to Agence France-Presse. Around 200 journalists and human rights activists marched in Niamey on October 20 to protest the detentions of Diallo and Kaka; both were still jailed when CPJ conducted its annual census of imprisoned journalists on December 1.