The presidential election of 16 December 2001 plunged Madagascar into one of the gravest crises of its modern history from the outset of 2002. The challenger, Antananarivo mayor Marc Ravalomanana, claimed an outright, first-round victory with 52 per cent of the vote and refused to take part in a run-off. Incumbent President Didier Ratsiraka rejected Ravalomanana’s claim and refused to concede. A drawn-out crisis ensued, leading in March to Madagascar’s temporary partition and an economic blockade of Antananarivo, the highland capital. For several weeks, Madagascar had two governments, two capitals and two presidents.
The two rival pretenders immediately saw the need to have their own news media. On the one hand, the incumbent and his government controlled the national radio and television. One the other, Ravalomanana, an entrepreneur, had his own commercial radio and TV network, the Madagascar Broadcasting Services (MBS). At the end of January, a demonstration organised by Ravalomanana went to the headquarters of the state-owned radio and TV broadcaster, the only network with nationwide coverage. Fearing violence, the management immediately promised the opposition more access to the state own media. The same evening, the state-owned radio station, RNM, and the state-owned television, TVM, carried speeches by members of Ravalomanana’s support committee.
Broadcasting by TVM and RNM was suspended on 25 February, leaving the inhabitants of some isolated provinces without any way of knowing what was going on aside from telephone calls to relatives or friends in the capital. Fast-spreading rumours and disinformation took over. But on 7 March the state-owned news media resumed broadcasting, with the now stated goal of "respecting pluralism in news reporting and providing a forum to all the country’s political tendencies."
The crisis and the economic blockade of the capital in June by the forces supporting Ratsiraka seriously weakened an already fragile press. Advertising revenue plunged, newsprint rose in price and newspapers were no long distributed throughout the country. The main Madagascan newspapers were forced to cut the number of their pages and took many months to recover.
The Internet was the only medium to benefit. Desperate for information, Madagascans at home and abroad with Internet connections checked the websites of the national dailies every day. Internet service providers reported an increase in new subscriptions and more time spent online. The rival presidential candidates used the Internet to put out their version of the truth and each camp had its own website.
The crisis wound down in the summer and things gradually went back to normal, as did the conditions or work for journalists. But some journalists were concerned about the future of press freedom in Madagascar and feared that new forms of pressure could emerge.
Three journalists imprisoned
Shooting broke out at Amborovy airport on 30 May 2002 when soldiers came to clear the airstrip of debris deliberately left there by Ratsiraka’s supporters to prevent military aircraft from landing. Two journalists, Jimmy Belafonte and Hary Rakotondramanana of the privately-owned radio and TV company RTA-Kalizy, were detained in the ensuing confusion. They were beaten and taken to the gendarmerie in the northern town of Mahajanga. Belafonte was soon released. RTA-Kalizy director Claude Pagès, who is also Mahajanga’s mayor, was briefly detained a few days later. Rakotondramanana was finally released on 12 June after being held for two weeks in the gendarmerie.
A journalist with Radio Cactus known as Mahiliala was detained in early June in the southern town of Ambovombe without any explanation being provided by the authorities. He was released few hours later.
Journalist Nestor Rasolofonjatovo was arrested in mid-August. He used to be the correspondent of the state-owned television station TVM in Toamasina, the port city that was former President Ratsiraka’s stronghold. He then worked for FMA, a radio station run by Ratsiraka’s former deputy prime minister. No explanation was given for his arrest, which was presumed to be linked to statements he made during the crisis. He was released provisionally a few days later.
Three journalists physically attacked
A three-member TV crew, cameraman Louis Rakotonomenjanahary and journalists Andry Rakotosolofo and Tahiritiana Ranaivosoa, were attacked by Ratsiraka supporters on 17 February 2002 in Brickaville, a town near the coast east of the capital, because they worked for MBS, the television station owned by Ravalomanana. They were held for several hours before being released.
Narcisse Randriamirado, correspondent of the daily Madagascar Tribune in the northern town of Antsiranana, was threatened several times by local authorities in March 2002. He went into hiding for several days.
Threats were made in May against national newspaper correspondents in three coastal towns: Toliara in the southwest, Toamasina in the east and Antsiranana in the far north. Some of them were also summoned by provincial authorities to explain reports deemed "tendentious." As a result, some started keeping their byline out of their stories for fear of reprisals.
Pressure and obstruction
Lt. Col. Coutiti, an information ministry advisor on security matters, closed the privately-owned radio station FM 91 on the northern offshore island of Nosy Be on 2 February 2002 without any official authorisation. He also confiscated the station’s equipment. The station’s owner is a provincial councillor and Ravalomanana supporter.
Stone-throwing secondary school students vandalized the premises of privately-owned Amoron’i Mania Radio-Television (ART) at Ambositra les Roses (near the highland town of Antsirabe) on 20 February in protest against the station’s allegedly partisan reporting. Its owner was Ratsiraka’s prime minister.
Around 10 masked men attacked the local office of the Ravalomanana-owned radio network MBS in the highland town of Fianarantsoa (300 km. south of the capital) on the night of 23 February, setting fire to the premises and seriously injuring three guards. The MBS office in the nearby town of Antsirabe immediately stepped up security for fear of a similar attack. "We’ve been holed up inside the station for the past three days fearing for our safety," the station manager said.
The premises of Radio Tsiokavao, a privately-owned radio station in the capital that supported Ratsiraka, were completely destroyed on the night of 27 February by a fire started by Ravalomanana supporters. "We did it in response to the burning down of radio MBS," one of the fire-raisers said.
Soldiers vandalised the premises of Radio Soleil, owned by a pro-Ravalomanana member of the national assembly, in the northeastern coastal town of Sambava on 16 March. The same soldiers went back two days later to destroy equipment left intact.
RTA, a privately-owned radio and TV station in the capital, announced on 8 April that it was dropping its news bulletins because of telephone threats and threats that had been made against its journalists although the station had always given the straight news, without taking sides. The station said its journalists were threatened by Ravalomanana activists while covering a fire at the home of a government minister. It reinstated its news bulletins at the end of April.
The governor of southwestern Toliara province, Jean de Dieu Maharante, banned the sale of the national daily newspapers in his province on 12 April, without giving any explanation. The ban was lifted a few weeks later and the newspapers circulated in the province again.
After the constitutional high court president’s speech proclaiming Ravalomanana’s victory in the presidential election was carried live by privately-owned radio and TV station RTA-Kalizy on 29 April, the station director’s home in Majunga was the target of an attempted break-in the next day, and editorial staff received threats. The station suspended its news programmes for two days.
Someone severed the cables supplying power to the transmitters of the privately-owned television stations M3TV and RTA-Kalizy in Majunga on 6 May, forcing them off the air for a day while they were repaired.
Unidentified assailants tried to attack the antennae of the television station Super TV and the radio station Canal 6 on the night of 26 May, but were driven back by soldiers. The two stations, both sympathetic to Ratsiraka, stopped broadcasting a month later.