Area: 622,980 sq.km.
Languages: French, Sango
Head of state: President (Gen.) François Bozizé
The press is poor but stubborn in Bangui. Two journalists had spells in prison in the course of the year. But the Central African Republic followed the example of Uganda and Togo in finally decriminalizing press offences after a courageous fight by local journalists.
There were highs and lows for the Central African Republic’s press in 2004. The lows were the arrests of several journalists, in most cases for daring to expose corruption allegations involving leading government members or to challenge those in authority in some other way. Jude Zossé, the managing editor of the daily L’Hirondelle, was for example sentenced to six months in prison and a fine of 200 000 CFA francs (305 euros) on 12 March for "insulting the head of state." But it seems the outcry over the imprisonment of Maka Gbossokotto during the summer finally convinced President François Bozizé of the urgent need to reform the press law. It was completed before the end of the year.
The managing editor of the independent daily Le Citoyen and the Reporters Without Borders correspondent, Gbossokotto was detained as a result of a libel complaint by Bozizé associate Jean-Serge Wafio, the former head of the Enerca power company, over a series of articles accusing him of embezzlement. Wafio had already been dismissed for mismanagement. After being held for a month in very poor prison conditions, Gbossokotto received a suspended sentence of a year in prison and a fine of 500,00 CFA francs (750 euros) for just "public insult," as the libel charge was finally dropped. He was also ordered to pay Wafio 1 CFA franc in damages.
His arrest and imprisonment sparked a wave of protests, in particular, from the Group of Independent Privately-Owned Central African Press Editors (GEPPIC), which suspended publication of all their newspapers from 12 to 19 July. After his release, Gbossokotto became one of GEPPIC’s most active spokespersons, calling on the government to decriminalize press offences as President Bozizé had promised to do when he took power, and as his government had again promised in 2003 to Reporters Without Borders. GEPPIC’s campaign included maintaining a "day without newspapers" every Friday until it achieved its goal.
The old press law, which was adopted in 1998, provided for prison sentences for libel and "publishing false news." In 2002, the then members of the national assembly had refused to put a proposed reform of the press law to the vote.
But, in late November 2004, the national assembly finally got to work on a very democratic bill abolishing prison sentences for press offences. After 10 hours of debates, it was passed almost unanimously on 26 November. As a result, as it was about to enter an electoral period that should be decisive for its future, the Central African Republic joined the growing group of African countries that no longer throw their journalists in prison.