Central African Republic editor jailed in politicized case

New York, January 25, 2012–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on authorities in the Central African Republic to immediately release a newspaper editor imprisoned since January 16 and to drop a politicized prosecution that stems from the paper’s critical coverage of a presidential relative who also serves as the government’s finance minister. 

Police arrested Ferdinand Samba, top editor of the private daily Le Démocrate, at the paper’s offices in Bangui, defense lawyer Nicolas Tiangaye told CPJ. Samba was charged three days later with incitement to hatred, defamation, and insult based on a complaint filed by Sylvain Ndoutingaï, finance minister and nephew of President François Bozizé, over a series of columns published between September and November 2011, Tiangaye said. The opinion pieces, written by Samba, criticized Ndoutingaï’s management of public finances and reported allegations of abuse of power and embezzlement, Le Démocrate Editor-in-Chief Brice Oundagnon told CPJ.

The public prosecutor is seeking a one-year prison term, 50 million CFA franc (US$97,000) in damages, and a six-month suspension of the newspaper, Tiangaye said.

The requested prison term contravenes the country’s 2005 press law, which abolished imprisonment for alleged press offenses, according to Tiangaye and the country’s newspaper publisher association. Samba, originally jailed at the Central Office for Repression of Banditry, has been transferred to Bangui’s central prison, where he is to be held pending trial.

Tiangaye told CPJ that the damages and suspension are aimed at silencing a newspaper that has reported critically about a senior government official.

“The imprisonment of Ferdinand Samba is a glaring affront to the Central African Republic press law, which abolished the jailing of journalists,” said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. “We call on authorities to release Samba immediately and end a politicized case launched by an influential public figure to shield himself from legitimate scrutiny.”

Several local groups have denounced the politicized prosecution. The Media Observatory of Central African Republic (known by its French acronym OMCA) and the Group of Publishers of the Private Independent Central African Press (known by its French acronym GEPPIC)  were among those to condemn Samba’s arrest, according to news reports. The country’s private newspapers staged a news blackout on January 19 and 20 to protest the imprisonment.