As in the past, the news media suffered in the political convulsions of 2002. After an attempted coup d’etat by supporters of Gen. François Bozizé on 25 October, the government took a tougher line with the independent and opposition media. Several local journalists were threatened and a visiting French correspondent was turned back at Bangui airport. The authorities did not want reporters investigating allegations of abuses by the armed forces, the FACA, and or by the troops of Congolese rebel Jean Pierre Bemba, which came to support President Ange-Félix Patassé’s government. The government repeatedly rejected the allegations of human rights organisations but prevented reporters from finding out for themselves.
There were two positive developments worth noting. The national assembly rejected two draft press laws in May, deeming them too draconian because they maintained prison sentences of one month to three year for press offences. The authorities had pledged to amend the press law after a meeting in Bangui with representatives of Reporters Without Borders. A new draft must now be presented to the parliament.
The opposition finally obtained access to the state-owned media in early December when, at the behest of the authorities, the state radio and TV broadcasters began carrying programmes in which members of the public were given the microphone and representatives of all political currents could be interviewed.
A journalist abducted
Supporters of Gen. Bozizé kidnapped Prosper N’Douba, presidential spokesman and publisher of the newspaper Centrafrique Presse, at the end of October 2002 as he was travelling in a car in the north of the capital. In mid-November, the Central African Network of Journalists for African Union appealed to the rebels to release N’Douba. After being held for five weeks, he was finally returned safe and sound to his family in Bangui by the International Committee of the Red Cross on 2 December.
A journalist physically attacked
A member of the Libyan troop contingent that protects President Patassé fired on the vehicle of Alain Georges N’Gatoua, director general of the presidential press, on 26 November 2002 in Bangui. N’Gatoua was hospitalised with bullet wounds to the abdomen and right arm.
Two journalists threatened
Joseph Benamse, a correspondent for the Associated Press and BBC, was threatened on 14 November 2002 by a presidential driver who also heads an armed militia. Benamse said the driver, accompanied by seven well-armed soldiers, followed his car, forced him to stop and then accused him of lacking objectivity in his coverage of the recent coup attempt.
Maka Gbossokotto, publisher of the Citoyen, reported that his telephone line was cut several times and that he suspected that he was being watched. This happened after his newspaper reported atrocities by troops led by the Congolese rebel Jean-Pierre Bemba who came to support President Patassé after the October coup attempt. An official who did not want to be identified reportedly told him he was about to be arrested.
Pressure and obstruction
Reception of the signal of the pan-African radio station Africa No. 1 ceased in Bangui on 24 October 2002. Then reception of Radio France Internationale (RFI) stopped on 16 November, several days after President Patassé complained about RFI’s coverage and threatened to stop its FM broadcasting in Bangui if it continued unchanged. On 19 November, communication minister Gabriel-Jean Edouard Koyambounou denied cutting off the two stations’ transmitters and said they could have been damaged by the heavy rains or lightning. Reception of both stations resumed the next day
Thierry Oberlé, a visiting correspondent of the French daily Le Figaro, was denied entry into the country by airport police when he arrived at Bangui’s Mpoko airport on 17 November. No reason was given. Oberlé said he thought airport operations were being supervised at the time by a member of the mercenary team led by former French gendarme Paul Barril.