There was a sharp decline in respect for press freedom in Niger in autumn 2003. Journalists were arrested for articles criticising the authorities and ten privately-owned radio stations were closed.
During the three months from September to November 2003, the authorities had eight journalists arrested and ten privately-owned radio stations closed. In just a few weeks, Niger had become one of the Sahel’s most intolerant countries as regards press freedom. A visit by French President Jacques Chirac at the end of October changed nothing. Local observers could not account for this sudden crackdown by a government which had on several occasions in the past stressed his commitment to the broadest freedom of expression.
Furthermore, the judicial authorities, which never ceased to stress their independence from the executive, violated procedures in the conviction and sentencing of Le Républicain editor Mamane Abou. Some jurists went so far as to claim that the court had just implemented a decision taken by the government.
The press had to cope with enormous economic hardship. Printing became very costly while newspapers were no longer distributed throughout the country. Advertisers were hard to find and the often-announced creation of a press assistance fund continued to be postponed. Street hawkers who rent out copies of newspapers for less than the retail price were accused of contributing to the demise of some newspapers. Other vendors sold cheap photocopies of the leading newspapers.
Three journalists imprisoned
One journalist was still in prison in Niger at the end of 2003.
Mamane Abou, the editor of the privately-owned weekly Le Républicain, was detained on 5 November 2003 and taken to Niamey’s main prison. Two days later, although still in prison, he was tried and convicted of libel in his absence and was sentenced to six months in prison, a fine of 300,000 CFA francs (about 450 euros) and damages of 10 millions CFA francs (15,200 euros). His lawyer, Oumarou Souleye, said he was never informed of the date of his client’s trial and voiced outrage at the procedural violation (trying Abou in absentia although he was detained at the time). Abou was convicted of libelling a former finance minister (by alleging that he had embezzled government funds) and of publishing confidential treasury documents, which he had used to back the allegations. Police prevented a street demonstration in support of Abou from taking place in Niamey on 13 November. Abou was meanwhile transferred to Say prison, 50 km south of the capital.
Ibrahim Souley, the editor of the weekly L’Enquêteur, was detained by detectives on 13 September and held in police custody for 48 hours, without being allowed visitors. The newspaper’s founder, Soumana Maïga, was also arrested but was released a few hours later. On 16 September, Souley was jailed in Niamey’s main prison on a charge brought by the state prosecutor accusing him of "inciting ethnic hatred" by reporting that investors in the east of the country were disgruntled about "juicy deals" accorded to Djibo Zakou, a businessman from the west. Souley was convicted on the ethnic hatred charge on 13 September, and was given a one-year suspended sentence. He was also banned from residing in the capital for three months. He was then released.
A journalist released in 2003
Abdoulaye Tiémogo, editor of the Canard déchaîné, was released on 18 February on completing an eight-month prison sentence. He had been detained by detectives in Niamey on 18 June 2002 on a complaint by Prime Minister Hama Amadou and had been convicted of "libel and insult" because of three reports that were very critical of Amadou.
Five journalists detained
Moussa Tchangari, the editor of the privately-owned weekly Alternative, was detained by police on 9 October 2003 in connection with the previous day’s violent demonstrations in the capital by students calling for "better work conditions." Tchangari was alleged to have incited this demonstration, above all in an address he gave during a political conference the previous week. He was released after 48 hours in police custody and charges were dropped.
Hamza Nomao, the manager of Radio Saraounia’s branch in Madaoua (500 km east of Niamey), was detained on 14 October after asking the local police superintendent to give him a copy of the order to close down his station, which had arrived a few days earlier. He was released on the evening of the next day.
Three members of the staff of Anfani FM, an independent radio station in the southern town of Zinder, were arrested on the orders of prefect Abba Malam Boukar on 13 November after they broadcast reports about a conflict between leaseholders that turned violent and led to the deaths of two persons. Journalists Amadou Mamoudou and Harouna Mato were released after a few hours. Station manager Ismaël Moutari was not released until the next day. No one was charged.
Journalists physically attacked
Reporters Mariama Soumana and Youssouf Diallo of the commercial TV station Radio Télévision Ténéré (RTT) were threatened with reprisals by students at Niamey university on 13 June 2003 after filming some students selling canned sardines that had been stolen from the national centre for university programmes. The day after the report was aired, some 50 students invaded RTT’s studios, harassing the station’s director, Mallam Yaro, several journalists and visitors. Two cars, one belonging to RTT and one to a visitor, were ransacked.
Harassment and obstruction
Nomade FM, a privately-owned radio station in the Agadez region, (1,000 km northeast of Niamey), was ordered to close on 11 February 2003 for "inciting rebellion." Station manager Serge Hilbron said the Agadez departmental police arrived brandishing a telegram in which the interior minister ordered the closure on the president’s instructions. The reason was a local-language programme on 5 February entitled "Guest on the air," in which Nomade FM’s programme director, journalist Ismaghil Iltinine, organised a debate on "peace, security and development in the northern region." Two of the participants were former rebels who expressed discontent about the government’s failure to implement various aspects of the peace accords including the reintegration of former rebels. Nomade FM resumed broadcasting on 26 February.
The Superior Council for Communication (CSC), the body that regulates broadcasting and communications, ordered 10 privately-owned radio stations to stop broadcasting on 25 September, announcing that their operating permits had been cancelled for "failing to conform to the regulations in force." This occurred as the CSC was going through a crisis of its own, with members taking issue with decisions taken by previous members. The targeted stations included Horizon FM, Sahara FM, Saraounia FM and Radio Madiana. All the stations affected decided not to comply and continued broadcasting. On 4 October, police closed down Alternative, Saraounia FM and Bitinkodji FM, ejecting the journalists and putting the stations under surveillance. Other stations were closed in the following days.