Reporters Without Borders appealed today to Abdou Diouf, the secretary-general of the International Organisation of Francophone Countries (OIF), to get member states to set a timetable for decriminalizing press offences during the two-day OIF summit that begins tomorrow in Bucharest.
Despite the Bamako declaration in 2000 and the secretary-general’s repeated appeals, many OIF member countries still have not amended their press legislation. Some countries such as Rwanda, Vietnam and Tunisia clearly want to maintain an unjust and undemocratic tool of repression, but others simply have not realised the usefulness of such a reform.
“As well as complying with democratic standards upheld by the UN and OIF, countries that decriminalize press offences are able to deal more effectively with such problems as scandal sheets, corrupt journalists and breaches of press ethics,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Jailing someone does not redress defamation or inaccurate reporting. Only a regulatory mechanism managed by fellow journalists can do this. There are many good reasons for decriminalizing press offences but the political will is sometimes lacking.”
The press freedom organisation added: “We therefore appeal to Abdou Diouf to compel member countries to comply with a precise timetable to be determined at the Bucharest summit. Our organisation stands ready to explain to member countries once and for all why we think repressive laws are bad and why decriminalization is effective. This is the only logical option for the Francophone countries if they want to be considered democratic and if they want to help their media become more responsible.”
Journalists have recently been imprisoned in several countries where press freedom is not in danger. In Niger, for example, where press offences still have not been decriminalized despite electoral promises, Maman Abou, the managing editor of the privately-owned Le Républicain weekly, and Oumarou Keïta, his editor in chief, have been detained since 4 August. They were sentenced on 1 September to 18 months in prison, damages of 5 million CFA francs (7,600 euros) and a fine of 300,000 CFA francs (460 euros) for libel and “disseminating false news.”
The government prosecuted them for criticising Prime Minister Hama Amadou. They received an immediate summons, which was illegal because the code of criminal procedure makes no provision for this in cases of press offences. An appeal based on this procedural violation was nonetheless rejected on 25 September, as was a request for their release on bail. One of their lawyers said an appeal based on the facts of the case will not be heard before the end of the year.
Saliss Dago of the privately-owned weekly L’Enquêteur was sentenced by a Niamey court on 16 September to six months in prison and a fine of more than 100,000 CFA francs (150 euros) for “disseminating false news” because of a 14 August article headlined “Black mass at Muslim cemetery” about the alleged ritual killing of infants at animist ceremonies in a cemetery in the capital.
In Benin, a country that has respected press freedom for years, Virgile Linkpon, the publisher of the privately-owned daily La Diaspora de Sabbat, and Richard Couao-Zotti, his managing editor, were arrested on 15 September and questioned about an article that claimed without supporting evidence that the president’s eldest son was insane. They were finally released on the evening of 18 September. Judicaël Adikpeto, one of the newspaper’s editors, was also arrested and held for a day. None of them was charged.
Cyrille Saïzonou, the publisher of the privately-owned daily Djakpata, was arrested on 18 September and was freed the next evening after being questioned by a prosecutor about poorly-sourced articles on 25 August, 1 September and 8 September headlined: “Competitive police exam: why are police chiefs in a hurry?”, “High-level government spying: Yayi Boni minister is secret agent for northern country” and “Holding of competitive police exams: does minister Alia want to permit cheating?”. Saïzonou was not charged.
In Mali, where no journalist had been imprisoned since 2003, Amadou Nanco Marikon, the acting manager of Radio Kayira in the southern city of Koutiala, presenters Mohamed Diakité and Magan Sidy, and coordinator Boubacar Diarra were arrested on 23 August after Kayira’s network of radio stations began broadcasting without authorisation. At the prefect’s behest, the police also shut down the network’s antenna at Niono. Gaoussou Goita and Yaya Coulibaly, Radio Kayira 1 presenters in Bamako, were arrested the next day.
Charged with “opposing the state’s authority,” the six Radio Kayira staff members were sentenced on 29 August to a month in prison and a fine of 50,000 CFA francs (76 euros). Yaya Sangaré, the president of the Mali Union of Free Radio and Television (URTEL), had contacted the communication and justice ministers prior to the trial in an effort to have them freed on bail, but he was unsuccessful. They were freed on completing their sentences on 25 September.
Finally Senegal will hold elections in early 2007 without first carrying out promised changes to its press legislation that have been years in the drafting. Many cases were brought against the press in 2005 and 2006 with heavy penalties being requested by prosecutors. In Chad, the negotiations which the Union of Chadian Journalists (UJT) began with the government still have not reached a conclusion. In Cameroon, the legislative reforms requested by press freedom organisations still have not materialised, although there have been clumsy attempts by the government.