Thursday, March 13, 2008

Niger shuts down RFI for three months. MCC, where is your leadership?

What does one even say about this? You have a journalist, Moussa Kaka, imprisoned since October because, as Niger authorities allege, he spoke on the telephone to northern-based rebels, an illegal act that constitutes supporting their cause. You have the authorities’ evidence, taped phone calls, which aren’t admissible in Niger courts, but made acceptable in this case. Then, you have Radio France Internationale, where Kaka works, who has a day of solidarity on March 10 for him as he spends his fifth month in prison. Finally, you have the Higher Council for Communication, the organ in charge of press issues, who suspends the French radio network two days later from broadcasting in the country for a period of three months.

Like I said: what does one say?

A few weeks back, I interviewed Boubacar Diallo of LibĂ©ration, who was at pains to point out that in most instances the government in Niamey does good work. It’s this year-old northern rebellion where they’ve gone mad. Now, the government claims that during its coverage about Kaka, RFI ignored the explanation of officials on his arrest and imprisonment. That may be true, but does that constitute shutting a station down for three months?

Diallo also made another interesting point: The government of Niger is not alone in its complicity. He was talking about the states which support the government of the world’s fourth poorest country.

He was referring to a question I asked about the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a Bush Administration plan set up to change the way the U.S. practices development by awarding well run countries who show respect for human rights, good governance, economic freedom and the like. It was the MCC that recently awarded Niger with a three-year $23 million program to fight corruption and provide greater demand for girls’ education.

Now, according to the MCC’s own report card, Niger fails, albeit barely, in its control of corruption, but passes in the following areas: political rights, civil liberties, government effectiveness and voice and accountability. (It does worse in the investing in people track – immunization rates, health expenditures, resource management, etc. – and OK in the area of economic freedom.)

These reports are taken from last year, 2007, when the same government decreed that journalists could not quote or interview members of the northern rebellion. The government claimed they did so out of sense of protection for journalists, but Diallo claims they did so to control the flow of information regarding a rebellion taking place 650 miles north of the capital city.

Since the rebellion began, RFI has been previously shut down for one month and Air-Info, a bi-monthly from Agadez, was not allowed to publish for three months. At least four Nigerien and three French journalists have spent time in prison. (But two more Nigerien journalists were arrested before the rebellion began for reporting about grumbles in the north.) The two French journalists who lied to the government about their whereabouts were found with taped interviews of rebel leaders, and possibly faced the death penalty for their charges. They were released after paying $22,000 bail. For the Nigeriens, only Moussa Kaka remains in prison, while the case is still pending of Ibrahim Manzo Diallo, editor of Air-Info’s who was recently released after spending four months in prison.

Human Rights organizations have documented countless human rights violations committed by the Nigerien military, including summary executions, extrajudicial killings, rape, destruction of property. (The rebels are certainly not innocent, but they didn’t receive $23 million for being humane to its constituents.)

The U.S. government created MCC so they could use a carrot to support well run countries and a stick to gain leverage on those sitting on the fence. The $23-million carrot has already been settled. When does the stick come out?

We’ve all been through this before. The government can claim how it treats journalists is an internal matter. That may be true, until U.S. tax dollars help pay for that internal matter. The question is, MCC what are you going to do?

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