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Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Central African Republic

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2004
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Central African Republic, February 2004, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c5669723.html [accessed 28 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

On March 15, rebels under the command of ousted former army commander François Bozizé captured the capital, Bangui, ending President Ange-Félix Patassé's 10-year rule over this mineral-rich but chronically unstable country. Two weeks later, Bozizé announced the formation of a transitional government with representatives from all political parties, including Patassé's Movement for the Liberation of the People of Central Africa (MLPC). He promised to organize a constitutional referendum, followed by elections in late 2004.

In a June speech commemorating the first 100 days since the coup, Bozizé also promised to protect free speech, stating, "Central Africans are free to express their opinions without fear of imprisonment. The press is free to criticize ... government actions." Among the many political prisoners released by Bozizé's troops following the coup was Mathurin Momet, publication director for the private, Bangui-based daily Le Confident, whom Patassé had imprisoned for "threatening state security" and "inciting tribal hatred."

The local press, weary of Patassé's often antagonistic relationship with the media, has mostly reacted positively toward the new regime, and some journalists have returned from exile in neighboring countries. Government press conferences, restricted to state-employed journalists under Patassé, are now open to all journalists.

However, Central African journalists still face stark challenges, including a harsh press law that allows journalists to be criminally prosecuted for their writing. Michel Ngokpele, publication director at the private daily Le Quotidien de Bangui, was arrested in May and sentenced in June to six months in prison for defamation and "inciting ethnic hatred." The verdict stemmed from an article by Ngokpele detailing corruption and embezzlement allegedly carried out by the head doctor at a local hospital. The article accused local officials of sheltering the doctor, hinting that the protection was due to ethnic allegiance. Ngokpele was released on November 26. In December, a group of journalists and editors from the private press urged the government to review laws governing the media and to decriminalize press offenses.

Additionally, several journalists faced harassment because of their work. In July, police officers summoned and interrogated Faustin Bambou, the publication director and editor-in-chief of the private biweekly paper Les Collines du Bas-Oubangui, after he wrote an article alleging that a local businessman was using government connections to extort money. Also in July, police arrested and detained Ferdinand Samba, publication director of the private daily Le Démocrate, after his article described an attack in the northern part of the country by rebels with ties to Patassé. In September, a heavily armed militia leader threatened employees at the offices of the private daily Le Citoyen after the paper published an article arguing that Bozizé does not control the former rebel militias who helped propel the president into power. The government sent guards to protect the office for several days after the incident, journalists at Le Citoyen said, but to their knowledge no disciplinary action was taken against the militia leader.

The largest problems faced by the Central African media are a lack of funding and training, and the insecurity and violence that persist despite the presence of a regional peacekeeping force. While several well-respected newspapers, such as the independent dailies Le Confident and Le Citoyen, are experiencing a renaissance in the newly relaxed political atmosphere in the capital, they are barely distributed outside Bangui. Many other private newspapers are plagued by financial problems that keep them from publishing more than a few times per month. Radio Ndeke Luka, which is managed by the Switzerland-based Hirondelle Foundation, provides an independent counterpoint to state-owned Radio Centrafricaine but does not broadcast beyond the capital. In rural areas, the only private sources of information are small religious and community radio stations.

Even state media are in financial disarray. The government plans to create a state-funded national newspaper and Web site, partly to counter the pro-Patassé news Web site Centrafrique-Presse, which is based in France and run by Patassé's former spokesperson Prosper N'Douba. However, given the country's desperate financial situation, journalists doubt that either initiative will be realized anytime soon. With the help of a grant from the Japanese government, the Central African Republic has embarked on a plan to repair broadcasting equipment damaged by age and warfare. In July, programming on state-run television was cut for several days because of technical problems. Local journalists say such cuts are frequent.

In the fall, the government organized a "National Dialogue," a vast undertaking aimed at reconciling the country after years of conflict. While originally planned to take place over a 10-day period in mid-September, the talks continued well into October as more than 300 delegates, representing diverse political, professional, and social organizations, discussed and made recommendations on national reconciliation; political and diplomatic issues; defense and security; the economy and finances; and educational, cultural, and social matters. During the talks, Bozizé, as well as former leader André Kolingba and the son of the late, notorious dictator Jean-Bedel Bokassa, apologized to the nation for past crimes. Among the recommendations for media development made by the commission on politics and diplomacy were the revision of the Press Law, the creation of an independent media regulatory body, and the inauguration of a communications department at the University of Bangui.


2003 Documented Cases – Central African Republic

FEBRUARY 19, 2003

Joseph Bénamsé, BBC/The Associated Press
HARASSED

Police in the capital, Bangui, detained Bénamsé, a correspondent for the BBC and The Associated Press, at around 10 a.m.

Authorities interrogated Bénamsé about his reports on the presence of Rwandan troops among Congolese Movement for the Liberation of Congo rebels, who were supporting then President Ange-Félix Patassé in his battle against Central African rebels in the north led by General François Bozizé. Bozizé's rebels had been fighting government forces since late 2001.

Bénamsé said that police accused him of being a Bozizé supporter and told him that he should not be reporting on events in the battle between the government and the rebels. Bénamsé was released at around 7 p.m. that evening.

FEBRUARY 20, 2003

Mathurin Momet, Le Confident
IMPRISONED

Police arrested Momet, publication director for the private, Bangui-based daily Le Confident, and charged him with "threatening state security" and "inciting tribal hatred."

The accusations stemmed from two articles that appeared in Le Confident in February. One reported that then President Ange-Félix Patassé had received an undignified reception at the recent Franco-African Summit in Paris, France. The other criticized Congolese rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba and his Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), which hadsupported Patassé against the rebel group of General François Bozizé, who had been fighting government forces since late 2001.

According to local sources, newspapers in Bangui suspended publication on March 3 for 48 hours to protest Momet's detention. On March 15, after Bozizé's rebels seized control of Bangui in a successful coup, they released Momet and several other prisoners.

JUNE 26, 2003
Posted: January 29, 2004

Michel Ngokpele, Le Quotidien de Bangui
IMPRISONED, LEGAL ACTION

Ngokpele, publication director at the private, French-language daily Le Quotidien de Bangui, in the southwestern city of Mbaiki, was sentenced to six months in prison for defamation and "inciting ethnic hatred," both offenses under the country's Press Law.

Police arrested Ngokpele on May 18. According to local journalists and news reports, prior to the arrest, Le Quotidien de Bangui published an article he wrote detailing alleged corruption and embezzlement charges against Dr. Thomas d'Acquin Koyazégbé, head doctor at the Mbaiki Hospital. The article also accused a local prosecutor and police commissioner of protecting the doctor because of ethnic allegiance, local journalists told CPJ. Dr. Koyazégbé then pressed charges against Ngokpele.

Ngokpele's colleagues told CPJ that he was in prison in Mbaiki. The Mbaiki court also ordered Ngokpele to pay 1 CFA franc to Dr. Koyazégbé as a symbolic reparation. The journalist was released on November 26.

JULY 3, 2003

Faustin Bambou, Les Collines du Bas-Oubangui
HARASSED

Bambou, publication director and editor-in-chief at the biweekly French-language paper Les Collines du Bas-Oubangui, went into hiding. That day, an article by Bambou in the paper had alleged that businessman Mahamat Youssouf was using connections to government officials to extort money in exchange for government contracts. Youssouf called Bambou at home, demanding that the journalist reveal the names of his sources for the article, according to Bambou. The journalist refused. Immediately after, a police officer called. Fearing arrest, Bambou went into hiding, he said.

On July 4, Bambou received a written summons from the police. On the morning of July 7, the journalist went to the police station and was held all day while police officers questioned him about what he had written in the article. Bambou told CPJ that the police officers asked him to report to them again the following day, and he was again questioned for several hours before being released.

The next week, police officers escorted Bambou to the Prosecutor's Office, where he was again questioned. After questioning, he signed a deposition in which he repeated the information from the article and refused to reveal his sources, Bambou told CPJ. Police then released him.

Bambou and other local journalists told CPJ that Central African Republic Communications Minister Parfait Mbaye intervened on the journalist's behalf, convincing Youssouf not to file defamation charges.

JULY 11, 2003

Ferdinand Samba, Le Démocrate
IMPRISONED, HARASSED

Police arrested Samba, publication director at the privately owned, French-language daily Le Démocrate, at his office in the capital, Bangui. The journalist was detained for four days before police released him, without charge, on July 15, Samba told CPJ.

On July 8, Le Démocrate ran an article by Samba describing an alleged attack in the northern part of the country by rebels with ties to former President Ange-Félix Patassé, who ran the Central African Republic (CAR) from 1993 to March 2003, when he was ousted in a coup led by current leader, François Bozizé.

Samba told CPJ that after his arrest, police took him to the office of the police commissioner, who questioned the journalist for an hour-and-a-half before having him sign a deposition stating that he took full responsibility for the content of his article. According to Samba, the commissioner asked him to reveal his sources for the article, but Samba refused. The police then accused him of inventing the rebel attack, said Samba.

The journalist said he was treated well in police detention and was kept in a room at the police station, where other journalists were able to visit him. Samba and other local journalists told CPJ that CAR Communications Minister Parfait Mbaye intervened on the journalist's behalf, convincing the police to release him. Mbaye also said that CAR's Press Law protects journalists from having to reveal their sources.

SEPTEMBER 2, 2003

Le Citoyen
THREATENED

A militia leader known as Patriku entered the offices of the private daily Le Citoyen the day after the paper published an article arguing that President François Bozizé does not control Patriku and other militia leaders who helped the president in his March coup. A source at Le Citoyen said that Patriku was armed with two hand grenades and a gun.

Local journalists said that Patriku confronted Maka Lucienne, whose husband is the paper's publisher, and threatened to kill her if the newspaper refused to publish his response to the article. Lucienne agreed to publish his response, and Patriku left the office.

Journalists told CPJ that Patriku returned to the newspaper's offices that same evening and again threatened staff members with death if they did not publish his response. The following day, the paper published the response, along with a short description of what had happened. The government sent guards to protect the office for several days, journalists at the newspaper said.

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