Reporters Without Borders today described the continued detention of newspaper editor Maka Gbossokotto for libel as a "disgraceful violation of press freedom" and called for his outright acquittal and release when a Bangui court issues its verdict on the case on 9 August.
Gbossokotto, who edits the independent daily Le Citoyen and is the Reporters Without Borders correspondent in the Central African Republic, has been detained since 8 July.
"It is high time the judges put an end to this intolerable situation," the organisation said, noting that the court’s refusal to accord him a provisional release at the first hearing on 16 July met with widespread disbelief.
The indictment brought by the prosecutor and the call for a one-year prison sentence in addition to a fine highlight the failure of the authorities to respect the pledges to decriminalise press offences which they gave when they came to power in the spring of last year, Reporters Without Borders said.
Although the libel prosecution was brought by a private individual, the government is clearly bringing its influence to bear on the judges and the case has had political overtones from the outset, the organisation charged. It added: "As justice cannot be fairly rendered, we call for Gbossokotto’s acquittal on all charges."
The libel complaint against Gbossokotto was brought by the former head of the national power utility ENERCA, Jean-Serge Wafio, who was fired by President François Bozizé for mismanagement and was accused of embezzlement in several articles in Le Citoyen.
Although the president has said he is "in no way concerned by the case, which involves two citizens," justice minister Hyacinthe Wodobodé recently contradicted him by publicly saying during a meal at the Chinese embassy that the government planned to request that Gbossokotto be sentenced to three months in prison and then pardon him on the Central African Republic’s independence day on 13 August.
Gbossokotto’s imprisonment had elicited many protests from civil society groups and has become a symbol of a hardening in the policies pursued by the Bozizé government, which has been rounding on all dissident voices whether in the opposition or the press.
The day after his arrest, the privately-owned news media suspended publication of their newspapers for a week in protest. A sit-in was planned by the Group of Independent Privately-Owned Central African Press Editors (GEPPIC) on 4 August, but it was banned at the last moment by interior minister Marcel Malonga, who deployed police at the site of the proposed protest. A new protest has been called for 8 August.
There have been many reactions in political circles as well. The opposition Liberal Democratic Party (PLD) challenged the government "about the repeated attacks on press freedom which have been accompanied by Maka Gbossokotto’s imprisonment." The Central African Transition Parliament (CNT) has at the same time issued "an urgent appeal to the national and international community to take action to thwart any attempt to return to an out-of-date and retrograde political order."