Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Looking for the clampdown: French journalists face prosecutor in Niger; questions over press freedom remain

The two French journalists facing a possible death sentence for “undermining state security” in Niger were in court Tuesday, January 15 for a pretrial hearing.

Pierre Creisson and Thomas Dandois, the journalists employed by the Franco-German TV Arte, were arrested by state authorities in mid-December for allegedly visiting Tuareg rebels in northern Niger, which broke state laws against any reporting associated with the 11-month old northern rebellion, sometimes called the Second Tuareg Rebellion.

The two journalists arrived in Niger and initially told authorities they would be traveling to the southern part of the country to compile a report on bird flu. However, they traveled north wishing to speak to members of the rebel movement, against the government ban. They were arrested shortly before arriving back in Niamey, the capital.

During the hearing, Creisson was called before the prosecutor, but his colleague Dandois remains in prison some 30 km south of the capital. Agence France Press claims that Niger military sources have viewed the video filmed by the journalists and found scenes of soldiers captured by the MNJ in chains.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented numerous human rights abuses by combatants on both sides of the conflict. Yet the government-sanctioned blockade of information has dimmed any prospects of following-up claims of human rights violations.

Press freedom questions
The trial highlights the questions of press freedom, where 14 journalists have been arrested since mid-2007 for breaking the government’s information edict relating to the rebellion.

Presently two Nigerien journalists remain behind bars. Moussa Kaka, director of a private radio station and Radio France International’s Niger correspondent, has been detained since September 26 and also faces the death sentence for “complicity to undermine the security of the state.” The second, Ibrahim Manzo, manager of the bi-weekly newspaper Air Info based in the northern city of Agadez, remains in custody after being arrested October 9.

As the rebellion remains a topic off-limits to journalists, a few media watchdog organizations argue, counter intuitively, that Niger actually enjoys more than a modicum of press freedom.

From IRIN, UN-based news agency:

We are concerned about what is happening in Niger but I certainly wouldn’t say it is the worst country in West Africa,” the head of RSF’s Africa programme, Leonard Vincent, told IRIN, pointing to The Gambia as a much more dangerous place for reporters.

With four private television stations, more than 30 private radios, and dozens of independent newspapers in the capital, Niamey, Vincent said Niger actually has one of the most vibrant and unregulated media industries on the continent.

“There is real press freedom in Niger,” he said.


Aissata Fall Bagna, head of the corruption watchdog Transparency International in Niger, said the media crackdown began in mid-2007 when the government started responding to a newly formed rebel movement operating in the north of the country.

“Everyone talks about corruption freely in Niger,” she said, also dismissing the MFWA’s allegations that journalists in Niger face more repression than in some other West African countries.

“There are no taboos when it comes to reporting on corruption and development, and journalists let people have all the information they need about this, as well as other development, commerce and food security related subjects,” she said.

Free press advocates and development specialists have long claimed that an uninhibited media that can check corruption and provide a proper forum for public opinion is necessary for a country’s economic and social development.

As IRIN points out, regardless of the clampdown on information and the arrests of journalists, the country enjoyed progress in key indexes, such as the UNDP’s Human Development Index (moving up four places) and a pat on the back from the World Bank for reducing corruption and improving democracy.


The government has long portrayed the Mouvement des Nigériens pour la justice, the MNJ, the group spearheading the rebellion as bandits and drug smugglers with little or no support from the general population of northern Niger.

Aid organizations have complained that because of violence and government decree, the north of Niger has largely been sealed off, making emergency operations impossible.

The indigenous and formally pastoral Tuaregs claim the government is not fulfilling economic development and political requirements from the 1995 peace deal, which ended their 1990s uprising. According to a Voice of America reporter once embedded with the MNJ, mineral revenues from the uranium-rich north lie at the heart of the group’s grievances.

As uranium reaches it's highest price in nearly four decades, the government has signed multi-million dollar deals with multiple international mining concerns.

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