1998 Press Freedom Awards – Boucar

International Press Freedom Awards

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Grémah Boucar
Besieged broadcaster Grémah Boucar, director of Niger’s only private radio station, exemplifies the experiences of Africa’s few truly independent radio broadcasters as he continues to face down numerous attempts by military ruler Gen. Ibrahim Ba’are Mainassara to force the station permanently off the air.

The pressure on journalists like Boucar is characteristic of a wider targeting of independent broadcasters by increasingly intolerant governments throughout Africa. In a region where radio is the most effective medium for reaching the majority of citizens, few governments have relinquished the airwaves to private ownership. Broadcasters like Boucar believe that if they succumb to government intimidation and harassment, they will never regain access to the airwaves. Despite huge financial and personal sacrifices, Boucar refuses to flee into exile; he remains committed to providing Niger’s only source of critical coverage of the government and its policies.

Boucar, who also publishes the bimonthly newspaper Anfani, launched Radio Anfani (FM 100MHZ) in 1994, during the administration of Niger’s first democratically elected president, Mahamane Ousmane. The station quickly became the nation’s primary source of news, providing extensive international coverage as an affiliate of the Voice of America, British Broadcasting Service, and Radio Deutsche Welle. A staff of dedicated investigative journalists also provided desperately needed analytical coverage of local politics.

Despite the government’s attempts to strictly control the press during the run-up to the July 1996 national elections, Radio Anfani had continued to allow banned opposition parties and unions access to the airwaves. On July 6, Soldiers stormed, vandalized, and occupied the Radio Anfani studios in retaliation for the station’s coverage of the political opposition. The station remained off the air for one month.

At 3:00 a.m. on March 1, 1997, five unidentified men wearing military uniforms ransacked the station’s studios, destroying newly installed equipment valued at US$80,000. In the weeks after the attack, Boucar, three Radio Anfani journalists, and two security guards were arrested on unspecified charges. Boucar and the guard who was on duty during the attack were subsequently charged with organizing the attack on the radio station to attract financial aid from sympathetic international agencies. As news of the attack on Radio Anfani spread throughout Niamey, thousands of citizens marched to the station to express their support for the journalists.

Since early 1997, Boucar and his staff have been repeatedly arrested, harassed, and threatened. Past attacks on Radio Anfani journalists stemmed from their coverage of the government’s actions to eliminate any viable political opposition; articles in Anfani newspaper criticizing certain government officials, and broadcasts that generated international criticism of Mainassara’s victory in elections, widely believed to have been fraudulent. The most recent threat against Radio Anfani occurred on May 4 when the station carried a joint petition, issued by representatives of the private media and correspondents of the foreign press in Niger, condemning the regime’s attempts to intimidate and censor the press. After a tip from sources in the military, Boucar shut down the radio station in anticipation of another violent closure by authorities. Radio Anfani’s facilities were under occupation by security officers as a result of the broadcast, but the station has since resumed broadcasting and is also currently operating a new facility in Zinder.

CPJ’s rapid response, and its ability to create a coalition of diplomats and international press freedom organizations, generated intense pressure and scrutiny on Mainassara’s regime, resulting in the release of Boucar and his staff.

Gremah Boucar practices his profession in an extremely difficult environment. At risk of being shut down at a moment’s notice, he has not compromised the content of Radio Anfani’s hard-hitting journalism and has attracted support from fellow citizens, diplomatic representatives of many Western nations, and international organizations such as CPJ. Many of Boucar’s colleagues believe that it is just a matter of time before President Mainassara’s irritation with Anfani’s objective reporting and popularity among the citizenry prompts him to order the station permanently shut down.

Boucar, 39, represents the challenges faced by Africa’s radio journalists who are currently under siege throughout the region. His plight is that of all journalists working under military dictatorships in the West Africa sub-region, where CPJ documents the greatest number of press freedom abuses in sub-Saharan Africa.