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Attacks on Madagascar press intensify

afrol News, 27 May - There is growing concern over increased attacks on the independent press in Madagascar as President Marc Ravalomanana becomes itchy on criticism. The latest setback for press freedom has been the expulsion of a correspondent for 'Radio France Internationale' (RFI), following his critical reporting.

Olivier Péguy, a correspondent for RFI and several other international news organisations, was forced to leave the country on 22 May after the Malagasy government refused to renew his work permit. Mr Péguy, who had been reporting from Madagascar for four years, today told the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that no explanation had been given for the non-renewal.

CPJ therefore urged the Malagasy President to make public the reasons for not renewing Mr Péguy's work permit. If the permit was withheld because of Péguy's critical reporting, the press freedom group urged President Ravalomanana's government "to reconsider and issue a renewal immediately."

According to CPJ, this is not the only attack on press freedom in Madagascar lately. The group said it was especially "troubled" by prison sentences given to journalists working for 'La Gazette de la Grande Ile', a private daily based in the capital, Antananarivo. Journalists working for the paper had been repeatedly targeted with criminal defamation suits.

Most recently, publication director Rolland Rasoamaharo of the newspaper and editor James Ramarosaona were each sentenced on 19 April to one month in jail for criminal defamation in connection with an article published in January 2004. The article had alleged that employees of a state-owned real estate agency, SEIMAD, had embezzled money.

Mr Rasoamaharo has been given at least three other prison sentences in connection with his work at the 'Gazette de la Grande Ile' in recent months. He and Mr Ramarosaona are however still free pending the newspaper's appeals.

The press freedom group urged President Ravalomanana to work toward decriminalising defamation and other press offences, whic currently was seen as the largest threat against press freedom in Madagascar. CPJ did not dispute the right of citizens to seek redress for alleged libel, but "it should be a civil, not criminal, matter," the group noted.

The Paris-based press freedom group Reporters sans Frontiers (RSF) earlier this week also protested the "camouflaged expulsion" of Mr Péguy, saying the government needed to "provide solid justification for this serious step taken against an honest journalist."

Malagasy Secretary of State for Public Security, Lucien Victor Razakanirina, and Minister of Civil Service, Jean Théodore Ranjivason, both told 'Agence France-Presse' (AFP), that they were not aware of Mr Péguy's case. But a letter sent to Mr Péguy to inform him of the non-renewal of his work permit had come from the ministry and referred to a previous letter, signed by the Secretary of State for Public Security, according to RSF.

The French and German embassies in Madagascar as well the management of RFI and German public radio 'Deutsche Welle' (DW) have also intervened to seek an explanation for the treatment of the French journalist.

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