With a simmering insurgency in the north, a split within the ruling government, and talk of a constitutional amendment to allow President Mamadou Tandja to run for a third term in 2009, authorities increasingly tightened restrictions on the press. The high-profile imprisonment of Moussa Kaka, a reporter well known for his coverage of the insurgency, illustrated tensions between the government and the press.
Niger’s news media worked in the crossfire of the conflict between the government and the Tuareg-led rebellion of the Nigerien Movement for Justice. The nomadic Tuaregs launched a military campaign in February 2007 seeking better representation in the government and a greater share of revenue from mining in their uranium-rich desert domain.
The conflict, though centered in Niger’s vast Saharan north, claimed the life of one prominent journalist in the capital, Niamey. Abdou Mahamane, director of Niger’s first independent radio station, Radio and Music, was killed January 8 after his Toyota drove over a land mine in a suburb west of Niamey. Mahamane, commonly known as “Jeannot,” was 50. No one claimed responsibility for the explosion, but it occurred in a neighborhood populated by army personnel and was widely seen as an extension of the fighting. CPJ’s inquiries did not immediately suggest the journalist was deliberately targeted. Authorities announced an investigation into the blast.
The deadly conflict remained a sensitive topic for the media; authorities enforced a strict ban on coverage of the rebellion and barred local and foreign media access to the war zone. Reporter Thomas Dandois and camera operator Pierre Creisson of the Franco-German Arte Television were jailed for a month on charges of threatening state security after police in Niamey found footage and photos of rebels. The two were pardoned in January after posting bail of 10 million CFA francs (US$22,271).
Self-censorship was pervasive in the northern rebel stronghold of Agadez, where authorities had imposed emergency measures such as indefinite detention without due process. In February, editor Ibrahim Manzo Diallo of the bimonthly Aïr Info, the sole publication in Agadez, was released on bail after four months in prison. Accused of involvement in an antigovernment demonstration, Diallo was arrested in October 2007 and charged with criminal conspiracy. Diallo’s arrest followed the suspension of his newspaper for allegedly undermining troop morale through critical coverage of the government’s security operations. The government’s efforts to control information on the conflict did not, however, deter the media-savvy rebels, who continued releasing statements on their France-based blog and using satellite phones to conduct media interviews.
Authorities claimed they had intercepted one of those satellite phone communications when they arrested Kaka, a Radio France Internationale (RFI) correspondent, in September 2007 based on recordings of purported conversations between the reporter and rebel leader Agali Alambo. Kaka was jailed for most of the year on a charge of “complicity in undermining the authority of the state,” which carried a potential life sentence. In a July interview from prison, Kaka told the Burkina Faso-based newspaper L’Observateur that authorities had edited the recordings to misrepresent his statements. The government had trouble making its case; one court ruled that the recordings were illegally obtained. On October 7, an appeals court ordered that Kaka be freed on bail and that he face a reduced charge of “undermining national territorial integrity.” That charge was punishable by up to 10 years in prison, defense lawyer Boureïma Fodi said.
Even coverage of the Kaka case proved risky for the media. In March, in response to a daylong series of programs aired on RFI in support of Kaka, authorities summarily banned the FM broadcasts of the France-based station. In an interview with CPJ, Daouda Diallo, president of the country’s official media regulator, the High Council on Communications, accused RFI of “falsehoods” and “a manifest intention to discredit Niger’s institutions.” The ban was lifted in June.
The ruling National Movement for the Development of Society party also faced a split within its ranks as the presidential election approached. Hama Amadou, a 2009 presidential contender, was arrested in June on charges of embezzling 100 million CFA francs (US$200,000) during his tenure as prime minister. Amadou, who was ousted by parliament in 2007, denied wrongdoing. As supporters of Amadou called for his release, followers of President Tandja began organizing programs on state media to discuss the possibility of a constitutional amendment allowing the incumbent to run for a third term.
Reporters and editors courted risk in covering the infighting. In February, Editor Aboubacar Gourouza of L’Eveil Plus, a bimonthly editorially aligned with Amadou, was arrested and charged with criminal defamation over an editorial critical of rival politician Moussa Keita. Gourouza was also charged with contempt of the judiciary over commentary critical of the handling of two high-profile corruption cases. He was sentenced to one month in prison and a fine of 50,000 CFA francs (US$120).
The Gourouza case illustrated the risk of sympathetic coverage of the embattled former prime minister, but it was not the last. In August, the High Council on Communications summarily suspended Niamey-based Dounia Television and Radio for a month for “noncompliance with regulatory terms and conditions.” The station denied the vague allegation, and several sources told CPJ the ruling was linked to Dounia’s considerable coverage of Amadou and his supporters.
In the lead-up to presidential elections in 2009, authorities imposed increasing legal and administrative restrictions on the press. On June 30, authorities summarily closed the press club center Maison de la Presse, claiming it was “becoming hostage to certain interest groups with hidden agendas,” according to a statement from Communications Minister Ben Omar Mohamed. The move stripped 14 professional media associations of a venue inside the Youth and Sports Ministry, according to local journalists. The government later conditioned the reopening of the press club on the inclusion of two government representatives as members. The journalists refused. In a September statement on national television, Mohamed threatened to ban all media associations.
Press cards were another source of tension. The High Council on Communications began enforcing a 2006 requirement that all journalists be government accredited, even as many independent journalists told CPJ that the very same agency had failed for months to process applications. In July and August, police summoned dozens of newspaper editors to determine whether they carried press cards. No charges were filed.
Independent journalists reporting on corruption or government mismanagement faced police detentions, criminal prosecutions, and prison sentences under the country’s insult laws. Top officials implicated in the stories consistently won convictions.
In February, Finance Minister Lamine Zène won a criminal libel suit against editor Ibrahim Souley and owner Soumana Idrissa Maïga of the bimonthly L’Enquêteur over a story alleging irregularities in road construction contracts. Souley and Maïga were each sentenced to one month in jail and fined 40,000 CFA francs (US$90). Interior Minister Albadé Abouba won a criminal libel case in November against Zakari Alzoumana, editor of the weekly Opinions. Alzoumana, whose paper had alleged corruption in the awarding of air transport contracts, was given a three-month suspended sentence. About 100 journalists marched in the streets of Niamey to protest.
Completing a string of government-launched libel cases, the director of the Niger power authority won convictions in November against editor Moussa Aksar and reporter Aboubacar Sani of the weekly L’Evènement. The journalists were sentenced to three months in prison and ordered to pay 500,000 CFA francs (US$1,000) in damages in connection with articles that scrutinized management of the power authority. Aksar and Sani spent five days in prison before being freed on appeal.
In one positive development, Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi dropped libel suits in February that had sought 300 million CFA francs (US$590,000) in damages against three private newspapers over their coverage of Libya and the Tuareg conflict. Bimonthly L’Action, and weeklies Le Canard Déchaîné and L’Evènement had reported alleged links between Libya and the rebels.
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