Reporters Without Borders called today for the immediate release of Central African Republic newspaper editor Maka Gbossokotto, who appeared in court on 16 July accused of libelling a former state official. The prosecution has demanded a year-long prison sentence and a fine.
The arrest and trial of Gbossokotto, who edits the independent daily Le Citoyen and is also the worldwide press freedom organisation’s local correspondent, showed that the promise to decriminalise press offences made when the present government took power in March 2003 was "very far from being fulfilled," Reporters Without Borders said. It called for the charges against him of libel and "public insults" to be dropped.
"The prosecutor’s call for harsh punishment is totally against press freedom and makes the government of President François Bozizé one of the most repressive regimes in Africa towards the media," it said.
"It is quite unacceptable that this journalist, arrested on 8 July, should be held in custody for a month until the court announces its verdict on 9 August, when he might be released. Only his immediate release and the dropping of all charges against him can put an end to this scandalous matter."
Gbossokotto is being sued by Jean-Serge Wafio, the former head of the state electricity company Enerca, for writing that he had stolen company funds. Wafio was sacked by Bozizé last month for bad management.
Judge Trinité M’Bango-Sangafio refused to release the journalist on bail when he appeared before him in Bamako on 16 July. Gbossokotto’s lawyers, including Nicolas Tiangaye, head of the country’s provisional parliament, the National Transition Council (CNT), called for his release and said the case was technically flawed.
A hundred or so people attended the trial and a large crowd also gathered outside the court building. Gbossokotto was arrested on 8 July and then formally charged and jailed on 12 July amid many protests, including by the country’s association of privately-owned and independent media editors, Geppic, which immediately suspended publication of all their titles when he was jailed.
Communications minister Lt. Col. Parfait Mbay threatened the independent media on 7 July in two official statements. The first condemned "recent serious excesses by independent newspapers, some of which are being used by certain Central African citizens to misinform and manipulate people and discredit top government officials and other citizens." Editors should "tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, while remembering that not every truth should be told."
In the second statement, he threatened the same editors that he would close their newspapers if they did not comply by 15 July with press law rules for permission to publish.
The state prosecutor attached to the Bangui appeals court, Sylvain N’Zas, accused the independent media on 9 July of making "offensive statements" about the country’s leaders and threatened to apply "the full force the law."