In Niger, editor jailed over corruption story

New York, January 27, 2009–The editor of an independent newspaper in the West African nation of Niger was jailed Monday in connection with an investigative story alleging corruption in the finance ministry, according to local journalists. 

Boussada Ben Ali, managing editor of the weekly L’Action, was jailed at Niamey’s main prison after a public prosecutor charged him with “divulging information likely to undermine public order,” according to local journalists. The charge relates to a January 13 story alleging that the Economy and Finance Ministry awarded a medical supply contract without an open bidding process. The story cited documents that appeared to bear the signature of Economy and Finance Minister Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine. Appearing on state television on Friday, Zeine said he had no involvement in the transaction, according to local journalists.

“The jailing of Boussada Ben Ali is part of a disturbing pattern of criminal defamation prosecutions to censor and intimidate investigative journalists,” said CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, Tom Rhodes. “Niger would do better to follow up on the allegations of corruption and wrongdoing unearthed by the press rather than imprison journalists performing a public service.”

Police arrested Ben Ali in his office on Friday and interrogated him over his sources before taking him to court, according to local journalists. If convicted, Ben Ali could face up to two years in prison and a fine of 1 million CFA francs (US$2,000) under Niger’s 1999 press law, according to defense lawyer Yahouza Amani.

In 2007, Ben Ali was convicted of libel and given a suspended sentence for a story alleging that former Tourism Minister Rhissa Ag Boula was colluding with Tuareg rebels in Niger’s vast Saharan north, according to the Niger Association of Independent Press Editors, known as ANEPI. The public prosecutor was expected to review an appeal in the case after Ag Boula publicly announced his defection to the rebellion in an interview with the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur in January 2008.

Six independent Nigerien journalists were sentenced to prison in 2008 for reporting on corruption or government mismanagement, according to CPJ research. They included editor Ibrahim Souley and owner Soumana Idrissa Maïga of the bimonthly L’Enquêteur who were sued by Zeine over a separate contract award. Amani, who is defending Ben Ali pro bono, said most Nigerien journalists do not have the means to pay for lawyers and need a legal defense fund to face a flurry of government lawsuits.