Following a crisis between the press and the government in 2005, the situation appeared to improve in N’Djamena. But the resumption in fighting, a state of war with Sudan and the government’s intolerance dealt a serious blow to freedoms in Chad. A state of emergency was declared at the end of the year. And with this came censorship.
The year started well, with the resolution of the crisis of the summer of 2005, which saw four journalists imprisoned in N’Djamena. Dialogue was restarted between the press and the government. Negotiations were even begun on law reform in line with President Idriss Deby Itno’s promises made to Reporters Without Borders, in September 2005. But fast-moving political events, particularly the resumption of clashes between rebels and government forces at the Sudanese border then into the capital itself, pushed the government into taking the absurd and pointless decision to reinstate censorship.
Tension started worsening in autumn 2006, when fighting resumed and the president openly accused neighbour Sudan, the rear base of armed movements, of having declared war on Chad. Against this background, on 27 October, Evariste Ngaralbaye, a journalist on the privately-owned weekly Notre Temps, was arrested and imprisoned for four days along with common-law prisoners. His arrest was linked to the publication of an article he wrote about child soldiers.
State of emergency
Two weeks later, when blood was shed in inter-communal clashes and rebel columns were advancing from the border with Darfur in Sudan, the government decided, on 13 November, to declare a state of emergency in six regions and in the capital. This step included restoring advance censorship on the written press, as well as a ban on privately-owned radios from covering sensitive subjects. The independent press - reduced to a handful of weeklies appearing only in N’Djamena and a few private and community radios - found itself at the end of 2006 under strict government surveillance, while fighting continued with very little news filtering out. Forced to appear from 23 November onwards, with whole passages cut out and criss-crossed with black bands, the written press, certain that it was now seen as an enemy of the state, joined in the resistance, in its own fashion.
After producing several defaced editions, five newspapers belonging to the Chadian Association of Private Newspaper Editors (AEPT), N’Djamena Bi-hebdo, Notre Temps, Le Temps, Sarh Tribune and Le Messager, decided to suspend publication for two weeks, from 6 December. The only publication which continued to appear normally was the pro-government privately-owned Le Progrès. An attempt was also made to challenge the censorship decree through the courts.
Chad had however escaped a first news blackout in April, when rebels mounted a surprise attack on N’Djamena. During their advance they also took the view that journalists were in their way. Eliakim Vanambyl, a reporter on privately-owned FM Liberté radio was kidnapped by a rebel column, in Mongo, central Chad on 11 April 2006. He managed to escape a few hours later with the help of one of the rebels and reached the town, where he was hidden by protestant monks until he could return to the capital.
On the government side, the army also kept a close watch on the press. Several foreign correspondents reported suffering threats and harassment. On 15 April, René Dillah Yombirim, a journalist on public radio and correspondent for the French service of the BBC, was viciously beaten by soldiers while he was interviewing residents in the capital, before being released a few hours later.
Finally, the regular harassment of Changuiz Vatankhah, editor of the community station Radio Brakoss and president of the Chad Private Radio Union (URPT) had an epilogue which Reporters Without Borders hopes is short-lived. The Iranian refugee, who has lived in Chad for several decades, was arrested on 28 April and placed under an order to be expelled from the country. He was only released on 19 May after international pressure and mediation by human rights minister, Abderaman Djasnabaille. The journalist, who was already regularly threatened for his local anti-corruption campaign and arrested once before, in September 2005, on the grounds that his radio “revived animosity between different rural communities in conflict”, had signed a URPT release calling for postponement of 3 May presidential elections. Forced to resign all his duties, he was however allowed to remain in Chad, with his family, which was in itself an achievement, given the Public Security Ministry hounding unleashed against him.