Reporters Without Borders protested today against the three prison sentences handed down in separate libel cases yesterday on Lola Rasoamaharo, the publisher of the independent daily La Gazette de la Grande Ile, who for the time being is still free, pending appeal.
"We are very worried by these court decisions which open the way for more pressure to put on the independent press," the press freedom organization said. "If Madagascar starts imprisoning journalists, it will be clearly choosing to go against the freedom of opinion and expression defended by the United Nations, which says prison sentences should be abolished for press offences."
Reporters Without Borders pointed out that these sentences came a year after the start of a workshop on the role of the media in reinforcing the democratic process, and at a time when the 1990 communication law - which made defamation and insult punishable by up to six months in prion - is being amended.
In the first lawsuit, Rasoamaharo was sentenced to two months in prison and a fine of 3 million ariary (1,200 euros) for libelling and insulting national assembly deputy speaker Mamy Rakotoarivel, who owns two newspapers and a TV station. Rakotoarivel’s request that Rasoamaharo should be banned from residing in Madagascar was rejected.
The action was brought over an editorial on 19 January which was headlined "A true cretin" and was accompanied by Rakotoarivel’s photo. It referred to an incident during a public event in which Rakotoarivel insulted James Ramarosaona, La Gazette de la Grande Ile’s managing editor, and called him a cretin.
In the second case, Lola Rasoamaharo was sentenced to two months in prison and his editor, Rolly Mercia, received a one-month suspended prison sentence and a symbolic fine of one ariary over a May 2004 report recalling that criminal charges had in past been considered and then dropped against Pakistani businessman Mamod Taky Mamode Abasseky. The businessman said the report had "seriously harmed his honour, respect and credibility."
In the third case, Rasoamaharo was sentenced to a month in prison and damages of 1 million ariary (400 euros) for libelling a person named as Gabhy Ramaherijaona.
Frank Raharison, one of the newspaper’s executives, told Reporters Without Borders: "This is the first time that a newspaper publisher has received a prison sentence since Madagascar became independent. We are very surprised and we see this as a message of intimidation towards the Madagascan press for being too critical. It is a way of trying to bring journalists into line."
Prison sentences cannot be served concurrently in Madagascar. The newspaper’s lawyer has appealed against all three convictions. Other newspapers such as Le Quotidien, Ngah, and Madagascar-Tribune have cases pending before the courts. In response to these lawsuits and convictions, the country’s journalists are planning a day of action and solidarity for which Reporters Without Borders has already promised its support.