Reporters Without Borders today demanded an explanation from Niger’s authorities for the arrest of Moussa Tchangari, the editor of the weekly Alternative, and for the closure of the radio station he runs, Alternative FM.
Tchangari, who also heads a civil society and political action group called the Democratic Coordination of Niger Civil Society (CDSCN), is one of five civil society activists who have been detained in the past week and charged with "plotting against state security, causing unarmed gatherings [and] forming an undeclared organization."
Shortly before Tchangari’s arrest on 26 March, he gave an interview to Radio France Internationale (RFI) about the current wave of protests against consumer prices increases. Reporters Without Borders has listened to a recording of this interview and can affirm that in no way was he inciting a riot or revolt.
"If Moussa Tchangari was arrested for statements he made during this interview, then the charges against him are totally unjustified," the press freedom organization said. "If he was detained for another reason, given the extreme tension currently prevailing in Niger, the government must say so clearly."
Reporters Without Borders added: "Either way, it is unacceptable that the police closed down a radio station in violation of the procedures laid down by the Higher Council for Communication (CSC). We urge President Mamadou Tandja not to panic and to act with more transparency in order to reassure the public."
There have been mounting protests against price increases since 15 March. Tchangari’s group, the CDSCN, is a member of the Coalition against the High Cost of Living, of which he and four other leaders were arrested between 25 and 27 March. They are Nouhou Arzika, the coalition’s president; Morou Amadou, the president of Crusade, a human rights group; Moustapha Kadi, the president of SOS Kandadji, a consumer defence group; and Kassoum Issa, another CDSCN activist.
The charges against Tchangari and the other four were announced when they were brought before an investigating judge in Niamey on 29 March. It was earlier the same day, at around 5 a.m., that plain-clothes police closed Alternative FM until further notice, on the orders of the Niamey public prosecutor.
The day before this wave of arrests began, the coalition had decided to call a general strike beginning on 5 April. The same day, the CDSCN had called a peaceful march and rally for 31 March to demand the repeal of the 2005 budget act that introduced a 19 per cent value added tax (VAT). The coalition blames the budget for a surge in prices, especially in the prices of staples.
Reached by Reporters Without Borders, Tchangari’s lawyer said his client was charged with violating state security for "calling for collective prayers for God to bless Niger and protect his opposing enemies." The lawyer denied that Tchangari ever said this and insisted that the charges were completely unsubstantiated.
As a journalist, Tchangari is known for criticizing the government and he was already arrested several times between 1997 and 2003 in connection with his work.