Attacks on the Press 2009: Madagascar

Top Developments
• Rival leaders use media empires to pursue political goals.
• Partisan attacks target journalists, news outlets.

Key Statistic
1: Journalist killed in 2009, the first Malagasy media fatality ever recorded by CPJ.

Malagasy journalists faced censorship, threats, and arrest as former president Marc Ravalomanana and new head of state Andry Rajoelina used their partisan media empires in a struggle for control of this Indian Ocean island nation. One journalist was killed in the midst of violent unrest.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
In African hot spots,
journalists forced into exile

Country Summaries
Other developments

Ravalomanana, halfway through his second, four-year term, faced increasing criticism over his management and policies. Contentious issues included the purchase of a US$70 million presidential plane, poverty, violations of civil liberties, and concerns expressed by Madagascar’s international aid donors over the management of public finances, according to international news reports.

Rajoelina, a brash, 34-year-old former disc jockey who was the mayor of the capital, Antananarivo, built support on such grievances and emerged as Ravalomanana’s chief rival. The two men, both self-made millionaires, increasingly clashed through their media outlets, setting off a protracted and deadly political crisis.

The seeds of the confrontation were planted in December 2008 when Information Ministry officials and police forced Rajoelina’s television station, Viva, off the air after it broadcast an interview with another Ravalomanana rival, exiled former president Didier Ratsiraka, according to local journalists. The censorship, which would continue for three months, galvanized opposition to Ravalomanana. Illustrating the emergence of social media, hundreds of Malagasies joined a Facebook support group named “For the Reopening of Viva TV,” according to CPJ research.

The crisis deepened in January, when two unidentified attackers threw an explosive device at the home of Rolly Mercia, a commentator for sister station Viva Radio, according to local journalists. The blast caused minor damage and no injuries. On January 18, security forces seized Viva’s television transmitter, setting off another round of political volleys. Rajoelina called on supporters to protect Viva Radio, while Communications Minister Bruno Andriatavison accused the radio station of “inciting civil disobedience and undermining the public’s trust in the republic’s institutions,” according to news reports. Within days, government security agents fired on the transmitter of Viva Radio, disabling it in a pre-dawn raid, according to local journalists. In retaliation, hundreds of antigovernment demonstrators ransacked and burned the studios of state broadcasters Radio Nationale Malgache and Télévision Nationale Malgache, along with those of the Ravalomanana-owned Malagasy Broadcasting System.

Emboldened by public opposition to the president, Rajoelina proclaimed himself in charge of the country’s affairs and announced the formation of a parallel, “transitional” government in February, according to news reports. In response, Ravalomanana sacked Rajoelina from his post as mayor of the capital, prompting more protests. Members of the press increasingly found themselves pawns in the political struggle, unsure even what information was credible. “The situation is conducive to rumors. We don’t know which information is true anymore,” Viva Radio presenter Lalatiana Rakotondrazafy told CPJ in February.

Clashes between security forces and demonstrators that month claimed the life of a journalist, the first Malagasy reporter killed in connection with his work since CPJ began keeping detailed death records in 1992. Ando Ratovonirina, 26, a reporter and cameraman with the private broadcaster Radio Télévision Analamanga, was on assignment, carrying a notebook and sound equipment, as he accompanied opposition supporters toward the presidential palace on February 7, according to local journalists. Presidential guards opened fire on the marchers near the gates of the palace, and Ratovonirina was hit in the head by gunfire, according to colleague Mirindra Raparivelo, who was filming the scene.

The struggle between Ravalomanana and Rajoelina was increasingly fought tit for tat. In one five-day period in March, soldiers ransacked Viva’s studios, assailants attacked a reporter for a pro-Ravalomanana daily, and both sides threatened attacks on each other’s media facilities. But Ravalomanana was losing the political battle. His support in the military having nearly evaporated, the embattled president handed power to a group of generals, who, pressed by their own mutinous officers, transferred authority to Rajoelina on March 17. The change in leadership led the African Union and the 15-nation Southern African Development Community to suspend Madagascar’s membership and prompted Western countries to freeze aid, according to news reports.

Throughout the battle for power, partisan media outlets used their journalists to promote political goals, often exceeding ethical bounds. Viva Radio, for example, aired the names and addresses of people identified as “stealing” taxpayer money during the Ravalomanana regime, leading mobs to burn one home and attack a number of others. Transcripts of programs on the Ravalomanana-owned Radio Mada, reviewed by CPJ, included incendiary commentary that threatened retaliation against perceived opponents of the president. The few media outlets that sought to cover protests and other events in a neutral way were attacked by extremists from both sides.

Both the Ravalomanana and Rajoelina governments politicized news media policies. Within days of Rajoelina’s takeover, new Communications Minister Augustin Andriamananoro declared in a press conference, “We must not confuse freedom with freedom to say or write anything.” The absence of an independent media regulator exacerbated the problem. Legislation establishing an independent regulator, the Broadcasting High Council, had been enacted in 1994, but the council itself was never formed, according to local journalists. Under the law, council membership would have excluded officer holders and those engaging in political activity.

Regulators from Rajoelina’s Communications Ministry, backed by soldiers, dismantled the transmitters of Radio Mada and Radio Fahazavana, a Christian station close to Ravalomanana, on April 19, according to news reports. Radio Mada presenter Evariste Ramanatsoavina was detained on May 4 and held for 16 days at Antanimora Prison, according to local journalists. A judge later convicted the journalist of “broadcasting false news” and fined him 1,000,000 ariary (US$500) for relaying messages supporting the deposed president, according to defense lawyer Fidele Rakotondrainibe.

As Ravalomanana remained in exile, his supporters, who called themselves “legalists” for opposing Rajoelina’s takeover as an anticonstitutional coup, organized continued protests. In November, after months of talks, political leaders agreed to form a transitional government until elections scheduled for 2010, according to news reports. Under the agreement, Rajoelina would remain head of state but share some power with Ravalomanana and two former presidents. In late year, the African Union and the Southern African Development Community maintained Madagascar’s suspension, and most international donors continued to withhold support.

The political crisis was a proving ground for emerging Malagasy news Web sites such as Sobika, Topmada, and Madatsara, said blogger Lova Rakotomalala, co-founder of the Foko Blog Club, which trains Malagasies in citizen journalism. “With intense political tensions and commercial interests at stake, a lot of the information carried in traditional media during the crisis was either manipulated or incomplete,” Rakotomalala wrote on the CPJ Blog in July. Internet penetration is very small in Madagascar—in the low single digits—but international news outlets did pick up a number of reports from online news sources. Some Web sites reported harassment; among them was Topmada, which suspended coverage for about two months in the face of threats.