A coup in the spring 2003 modified the political landscape. But the situation of the press remained more or less unchanged. Free to criticise the authorities, journalists nonetheless continued to work in a climate of violence, fraught with constant threats and harassment.
Gen. François Bozizé’s forces took control of the state radio and television a few hours after the coup on 15 March 2003. For almost a week, Radio Centrafrique broadcast nothing but martial music and the new strongman’s speeches. Bangui was not safe and no one could drive around except the military. Since the newspapers could not distribute their editions, they temporarily suspended publication. Several journalists close to deposed President Ange-Félix Patassé fled the country.
As soon as they took power, the new authorities undertook to respect press freedom. The government even contacted Reporters Without Borders and asked for help with decriminalising press offences. However, these commitments had still not been implemented at the end of 2003.
There were small changes in the way the state-owned media worked after the coup. Their journalists were allowed a bit more freedom and some used it to criticise the government’s performance. So much so that Prime Minister Abel Goumba voiced surprise and urged the state media to give the transitional government more support.
Three journalists imprisoned
Plain-clothes police arrested Mathurin Momet, the editor of the privately-owned daily Le Confident, at the newspaper’s headquarters on 20 February 2003 and took him to the port police station in Bangui for interrogation. He was detained on charges of "violating the state’s internal and external security" as well as "inciting hatred" and being a "propagandist for Bozizé’s rebels" because of several articles, including one on 19 February headlined: "Bossembélé: deputy prefect and brigade commander beaten by the Banyamulengue." This was about abuses by the troops of Congolese rebel Jean Pierre Bemba, who had come to support President Ange-Félix Patassé’s government, and Patassé’s inability to control them. The police also questioned him about an article headlined: "Patassé humiliated at 22nd France-Africa Summit." Momet was released on 15 March along with several other detainees after Gen. Bozizé’s coup, but the newspaper’s headquarters were nonetheless ransacked and looted by the rebels.
Michel Ngokpélé, the editor of the Quotidien de Bangui, was arrested on 18 May and put in M’Baïki prison, in the south of the country, because of an article he had written a few days before blaming a doctor for the death of several patients. On 3 July, the M’Baïki criminal court sentenced him to six months in prison for libel and "inciting ethnic hatred."
Ferdinand Samba, the editor of the independent daily Le Démocrate, was arrested at the headquarters of the Central African Independent Press Editors Group (GEPPIC) on 11 July and was taken to the port police station in Bangui for questioning about a report three days earlier in which he said some 30 people were killed in an attack by supporters of former President Patassé on the northern town of Kaga Bandoro. He was accused of publishing an erroneous and alarmist report that caused panic in the region. Nonetheless, he was released four days later and charges were dropped.
A journalist detained
Joseph Benamse, a stringer for the BBC and the Associated Press news agency, was detained on 19 February 2003 for allegedly revealing military secrets. In one of his reports, he had said that members for the former Rwandan armed forces were fighting alongside the troops of Congolese rebel Jean Pierre Bemba, who were supporting President Patassé. Benamse was released later the same day.
A journalist threatened
Maka Gbossokotto, the editor of the privately-owned daily Le Citoyen, reported several times in 2003 that he had been threatened by "elements in the army that are out of control." On 4 November, several days after Le Citoyen accused "liberators acting as criminals" of torture and rape, gunmen burst into his home looking for him, but he was not there. Thereafter, he received several phone calls threatening him with death.
Harassment and obstruction
Faustin Bambou, the editor of the biweekly Les Collines du Bas-Oubangui, received anonymous threats after publishing an article on 3 July 2003 criticising the privileges enjoyed by Mahamat Youssouf, a Chadian associate of Gen. Bozizé. Then he was summoned to the headquarters of the gendarmerie on 7 and 8 July and was interrogated at length. His case file was subsequently referred to the state prosecutor.
From 15 September onwards, journalists were barred from attending the commission meetings of delegates to the National Dialogue for Reconciliation (a body that is supposed to facilitate the transition to elections). The president of the dialogue’s secretariat, Pastor Isaac Zokoué, said plenary sessions would be open to the press. But he criticised the coverage of local newspapers, some of which had quoted delegates as saying that they did not want President Bozizé to run for president in the elections.