Five journalists, three of them foreigners, were imprisoned in 2007 for reporting on or interviewing Touareg rebels, who, from February onwards began attacking military posts in the north of the country. The government cannot bear to be contradicted by the press over a rebellion which it views as nothing more than a case of people “cutting off the roads”.
A hitherto unknown armed Touareg group, The Niger Justice Movement (MNJ), on 3 February 2007 attacked an army barracks in Iférouane, in the Air mountains, killing three soldiers. A few days later, the rebel group claimed responsibility for the bloody assault in the name of the MNJ, demanding greater rights for the Touareg and a larger share of the wealth. This murderous episode had a lasting effect on the fragile edifice on which President Mamadou Tandja had sought to lead his country to general elections scheduled for 2010. But it also considerably angered the Niger authorities who were stunned to see increased attacks in this uranium-mining region, and who sealed off the area militarily to silence journalists, foreign or Nigerian, who took too close an interest in the crisis.
Five journalists, three of them French, were sent to prison in 2007 for contradicting the government’s version of events that the MNJ was a group of “armed bandits” and “drug-traffickers”. The first to be arrested, at the end of August, was François Bergeron, an independent documentary-maker, who entered Niger secretly to make film on Touareg culture. He was held for 45 days and released on 6 October after lengthy and laborious negotiations between the French and Niger authorities.
While the French journalist was still being held, on 20 September, Moussa Kaka, director of privately-owned Radio Saraounia, and correspondent in Niger for Radio France Internationale (RFI) and Reporters Without Borders, was arrested at the radio studios. A few days later, after the prosecutor general had publicly accused him of “conniving” with the rebels, Kaka, one of the country’s best known and experienced journalists, was charged with “complicity in a plot against the authority of the state”. The authorities provided the courts with phone recordings to back up the accusation, which they described as overwhelming, of conversations between Kaka and one of the rebel chiefs, Alagi Alambo. It was not the first time the journalist, who has covered the Touareg issue for 15 years, had been arrested for similar reasons. He received a public death threat on 14 July, from the head of army staff, General Boureima. RFI broadcasts were suspended for one month by the media regulatory body, the Superior Communication Council (CSC), for allegedly “putting out false news” about events linked to the MNJ. Since his arrest, Moussa Kaka is awaiting his trial, confidently and proclaiming his innocence. Reporters Without Borders, who was able to visit him at the civilian prison in Niamey in November, pleaded his case with the authorities and reaffirmed after investigating the case, that it was convinced of his innocence.
Two weeks after the arrest of Kaka, the editor of a privately-owned weekly appearing in Agadez, Ibrahim Manzo Diallo, was arrested by Niger border police at the airport in Niamey as he was about to board a flight for France, where he was going to attend a training course. He was charged with “membership of a criminal gang” - a similar but less serious charge than that against his Niamey colleague, Moussa Kaka - and is awaiting trial in Agadez prison. It was not the first run-in with the authorities either for the small, low-circulation paper, founded by the former professor of literature in 2002. In June, Air-Info was shut down for three months for having allegedly “incited violence” in the conflict in the region between the army and the MNJ. He was arrested in July by police in Agadez after launching a new weekly. His deputy, the journalist, Daouda Yacouba, spent a week in a cell at his side, before being released without charge. His charge sheet is based on the same elements : phone tap recordings, carried out in unclear circumstances, showing the journalist’s alleged complicity with the rebels.
In the midst of this run of bad news, Reporters Without Borders was pleased to note that in September, independent judges, following a major judicial reform, re-examined these cases and managed not to give way to any political pressure. On 17 November, the examining magistrate in the Moussa Kaka case ruled that telephone tap recordings produced by the authorities were inadmissible. The judge said they violated the private nature of communications guaranteed under the constitution and had been done without a judicial order. The public ministry appealed against the decision, which could lead, if the appeal court confirms the judge’s conclusions, to the RFI correspondent’s release and, by extension that of Ibrahim Manzo Diallo.
This was the situation when two French journalists, Thomas Dandois and Pierre Creisson, were arrested in their turn in Niamey, after filming a report without permission for the French-German channel Arte on the MNJ in the Air mountains. They were charged on 21 December with “harming state security” and are due to appear in court at the start of 2008.
Promise of reform
It should be noted that against this background, the Niger government has postponed planned reform of the press law, which would abolish prison terms for “defamation” and “publication of false news”. According to the Communications Minister, the new draft law is ready, but will have to wait for a return to peace before it is put before parliament. The press in Niger has accepted this. In the past, the government has promised on several occasions to.. keep its promise of reform, made in 2003 during the presidential election campaign.