New York, December 8, 2020 — Malian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release journalists Adama Diarra and Seydou Oumar Traoré from custody and allow them to report freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On October 20, Diarra, also known as Vieux Blen, received a summons from Mali’s Judicial Investigations Brigade, a local law enforcement body, according to a copy of the summons posted on his Facebook page.
The following day, Diarra responded to the summons and appeared at the District Court of the Municipality III in the capital, Bamako, where he was placed in pretrial detention at the city’s Central Prison, according to two October 21 posts on that page.
On October 22, the Judicial Investigation Brigade issued a summons to Traoré, according to a copy of the summons posted on the journalist’s Facebook page that day.
On November 14, after Traoré did not respond to that summons, security forces arrested him in the village of Kati, 15 kilometers northwest of Bamako, and detained him in Bamako’s Central Prison awaiting trial, according to media reports as well as Bassidiki Touré, the president of the Association of Private Press Publishers, a local media trade group, and Mahamadou Talata Maïga, managing director of the Press House, an umbrella group of professional media organizations, both of whom spoke to CPJ over messaging app.
Both journalists are being held for alleged “outrage à magistrate” (“contempt of magistrates”), a form of criminal defamation of members of the country’s judicial system, according to reports as well as Touré and Maïga.
“Authorities in Mali should release journalists Adama Diarra and Seydou Oumar Traoré immediately and unconditionally, and reform the country’s laws to ensure that members of the press are not jailed for their work,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, in Durban, South Africa. “In addition to the serious concerns for press freedom in Mali, the health risks associated with detention during the COVID-19 pandemic make the jailing of two journalists particularly alarming.”
Diarra hosts a talk radio show on the privately owned Radio Voix des Jeunes broadcaster, and is the founder of the Dougouba Kônoko newspaper, which covers political, social, and economic issues, according to media reports and an image of Dougouba Kônoko reviewed by CPJ. He also posts news and political commentary on his public Facebook page, where he has about 85,000 followers.
Traoré is a talk radio host with the privately owned broadcaster Radio Jekafo, and also posts news and political commentary on his public Facebook page, where he has about 35,000 followers, according to CPJ’s review of his page.
Diarra’s arrest followed a complaint by the Autonomous Syndicate of the Judiciary (SAM) and the Free Syndicate of the Judiciary (SYLIMA), two trade groups representing magistrates, concerning his criticism on Facebook of judicial authorities’ conduct in the case of jailed musician Sidiki Diabaté, according to news reports, Diarra’s Facebook, and Touré.
In the days leading up to the October 20 summons, Diarra posted criticism of judicial authorities’ alleged mishandling of Diabaté’s case, including alleged procedural delays. Diarra had also been critical of judicial authorities during live radio broadcasts, according to media reports, Touré, and Maïga. CPJ was unable to review any episodes of Diarra’s radio shows.
The October 22 summons for Traoré similarly followed a complaint by the Autonomous Syndicate of the Judiciary and the Free Syndicate of the Judiciary, relating to his coverage of Diabaté’s case as well as Diarra’s arrest, according to an October 22 post on Traoré’s Facebook page, Touré, and media reports.
During the days leading up to the October 22 summons, Traoré repeatedly posted criticism of the authorities’ alleged harassment of Diarra and his arrest, as well as judicial authorities’ handling of other cases.
CPJ was unable to determine the specific law the journalists are alleged to have violated.
Convictions under Article 115 of Mali’s penal code, which relates to criminal defamation of magistrates, can carry prison terms of up to one year. Cases can also be prosecuted under Mali’s 2019 cybercrime law, which includes multiple sections pertaining to expression online that can carry prison sentences ranging from months to years, according to a copy of the law reviewed by CPJ and an analysis of the law by Uganda-based digital rights group CIPESA.
Touré told CPJ on December 3 that Diarra, who is physically disabled, has suffered from headaches and colds while in detention.
On November 2, 2020, the Free Syndicate of the Judiciary posted a joint statement, co-signed by the Autonomous Syndicate of the Judiciary, which accused “a few media men” of making “undeserved attacks against the institution of the judiciary and its central actors, the magistrates.” The statement did not name any specific journalists. It also emphasized freedom of the press and expression as important Malian values.
CPJ called Abba Maïga, head of communication for the Free Syndicate of the Judiciary, on December 3, and he requested questions about Traoré and Diarra be sent to him via messaging app. He confirmed receipt of those questions the same day, but then did not respond.
On December 7, CPJ called the public prosecutor for the District Court of the Municipality III in Bamako, who is also the president of the Autonomous Syndicate of the Judiciary, Mamoudou Kassogué. Due to a poor connection, Kassogué agreed to communicate via WhatsApp. CPJ called and sent him written questions using the app and via standard text message, but he did not respond.
In an October 16, 2020, Facebook post, Diarra claimed that Kassogué was “preparing a complaint” against him.