- An increasing number of media freedom organisations are stating their concerns about the deteriorating situation for the press in the Central African Republic under the rule of military leader François Bozizé. They urge him to address press freedom during the ongoing "National Dialogue" process.
In an open letter to the Central African military leader, the US-based the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) yesterday expressed its concerns. Ann Cooper, CPJ Executive Director, in the letter reminded the military leader "of the many challenges facing Central African media" at the moment.
While the press largely had been let to go after its business during the civilian administration of the country's democratically elected President, Ange-Félix Patassé, the new military administration has strongly limited the liberty of the press. The CPJ letter to General Bozizé mentions a large number of incidents.
According to CPJ, one journalist, Michel Ngokpele, publication director of the privately owned French-language daily 'Le Quotidien de Bangui', is languishing in prison after receiving a six-month sentence on 26 June for defamation and "inciting ethnic hatred," both deemed offences under the Central African Republic's press law.
On 18 May, police arrested Mr Ngokpele in Mbaiki, a town in the south-western part of the country, after the journalist's article ran in his paper detailing corruption and embezzling allegedly carried out by Dr Thomas d'Acquin Koyazégbé, head doctor at the Mbaiki hospital. The article also accused a local prosecutor and a police commissioner of sheltering the doctor, hinting that the protection was due to ethnic allegiance, local journalists had told CPJ. According to these sources, Dr Koyazégbé was the only one to press charges.
In July, police harassed two other Central African journalists in the capital, Bangui, according to Ann Cooper's letter.
On 11 July, police arrested Ferdinand Samba, publication director at the privately owned French-language daily 'Le Démocrate', and detained him for four days, the journalist had told CPJ. The arrest stemmed from a 8 July article by Samba that described an attack in the northern part of the country by rebels with ties to former President Patassé, who ran the Central African Republic from 1993 to March 2003.
Faustin Bambou, who is both director of publications and editor-in-chief at the bi-weekly French-language paper 'Les Collines du Bas-Oubangui', further was questioned by police officers on 7 and 8 July, after his article appeared on 3 July alleging that a businessman named Mahamat Youssouf was using his connections to members of the government to extort money in exchange for setting up government contracts. Mr Bambou was again questioned the following week, in the office of the General Prosecutor.
According to CPJ, both Mr Samba and Mr Bambou said that they refused to reveal the names of their sources. Several local journalists told the US-based group that the military government's Communications Minister, Parfait Mbaye, however had intervened on Mr Samba and Mr Bambou's behalf.
Also the Paris-based group Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) already in July this year stated its concerns about "the deteriorating press freedom situation" in the Central African Republic. According to RSF Secretary-General Robert Ménard, the new Central African authorities had even "contacted our organisation in order to assure us of their goodwill. We can only deplore that their promises have not been respected," he added.
Both RSF and CPJ demand "the immediate, unconditional release of Michel Ngokpele," and call on General Bozizé to ensure that his stated commitment to improving press freedom is fully upheld. Toward this end, CPJ urged the General "to revise the harsh Press Law currently in effect in the Central African Republic and decriminalize press offences in line with international standards of press freedom."
The military government yesterday opened its so-called "National Dialogue," which runs through 20 September and is aimed at reconciling the Central African Republic after years of unrest. Ms Copper urged General Bozizé to address the many challenges facing Central African media at this forum.
- While CPJ understands that the Central African press is young, we believe that an open environment with civil—instead of criminal—restitution for press offences is the best way to foster media professionalism, Ms Cooper writes. "Furthermore, several local journalists have expressed concern that charges such as 'inciting ethnic hatred' are vague and could be used to punish journalists for reporting on matters of public concern."
The Central African military leader in a 25 June speech had stated that Central Africans were now "free to express their opinions without fear of imprisonment." He further added that "The final objective of the transition period is peace, security, national reconciliation, and the laying down of a base for durable economic expansion and the organisation of free and truly democratic elections."
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