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Attacks on the Press in 2004 - Central African Republic

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2005
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2004 - Central African Republic, February 2005, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c566cec.html [accessed 23 August 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.

President François Bozizé's government imprisoned two prominent publication directors and harassed many other journalists as initial optimism that he would enact reforms gave way to the reality of civil strife and a bleak economy. Bozizé took power in this mineral-rich but chronically unstable nation after toppling former President Ange-Félix Patassé in a March 2003 coup. As the country prepared for legislative and presidential elections in early 2005, the press faced increasing intolerance from the government.

Tensions between the government and the private media came to a head in July, after a string of accusations in the press that members of the Bozizé government were corrupt, according to local journalists. In a press release read on state radio, Communications Minister Parfait Mbaye accused "certain members of the private press" of being used to "disinform, manipulate, and damage the image of the highest members of government." The following day, prosecutor Sylvain N'zas accused the private press of insulting government authorities and threatened legal action.

The accusations coincided with the July 8 arrest of Maka Gbossokotto, publication director of the private daily Le Citoyen (The Citizen), CAR's most popular newspaper, which is based in the capital, Bangui. He was taken into custody in connection with a defamation suit brought by the former director of CAR's national power company, Jean-Serge Wafio. According to local sources, a series of articles in Le Citoyen had accused Wafio of mismanagement and embezzlement. Gbossokotto was imprisoned in Bangui until August 9, when a court sentenced him to a one-year suspended jail term and a 500,000 CFA franc (US$960) fine for printing "public insults" against Wafio. He was freed the same day.

Gbossokotto's imprisonment followed that of Judes Zossé, publication director of the private Bangui-based daily L'Hirondelle (The Swallow). In March, Zossé was sentenced to six months in prison for "insulting the head of state" because of an article reprinted in L'Hirondelle alleging that Bozizé had personally taken over the collection of state tax revenue, prompting two senior Treasury officials to consider resigning. The article originally appeared on Centrafrique-presse.com, a France-based news Web site run by former Patassé spokesman Prosper N'Douba. Zossé was freed in May under a presidential pardon.

The cases sparked a wave of protests from local journalists, media organizations, and civil-society and opposition groups. The Group of Publishers of the Private Independent Central African Press (known by its French acronym, GEPPIC) held a one-week news blackout in July to condemn what journalists saw as a government attempt to muzzle the media.

After his release, Gbossokotto was elected head of the local journalists union, which, along with GEPPIC, intensified a campaign to reform CAR's harsh Press Law. Media professionals and lawyers drafted legislation to decriminalize press offenses, such as defamation and publication of false news, during a March seminar organized by the U.N. mission in CAR and the Communications Ministry. Bozizé said in August that he supported decriminalizing press offenses, but the Cabinet did not forward the draft to the National Transitional Council until GEPPIC organized weekly news blackouts in the fall to draw attention to the issue. The council, an interim parliament with advisory status, approved the legislation in November, but at year's end it awaited Bozizé's signature.

Journalists face many other challenges, notably chronic financial woes and the general violence that persists despite the presence of a regional peacekeeping force. While the capital boasts several well-respected dailies such as Le Citoyen, Le Confident (The Confidant), and Le Démocrate (The Democrat), they are not distributed outside the Bangui area. Financial problems keep many other private newspapers from publishing regularly. Radio Ndeke Luka, a joint initiative by the Switzerland-based Hirondelle Foundation, a media development organization that focuses on conflict areas, and the United Nations Development Program, provides an independent counterpoint to state-owned Radio Centrafrique. But Ndeke Luka's reach is limited; outside Bangui, it is available for only one hour daily, via shortwave.

Local journalists say violence instigated by former pro-Bozizé rebel fighters, forces loyal to Patassé, and criminal gangs prevent Bangui-based reporters from venturing outside the capital to work. Rural areas often lack basic communications infrastructure, which also impedes the flow of information.

State media are in financial disarray. In February, Communications Minister Mbaye announced that state-run radio and television could eventually be forced off the air without support from international donors. Local journalists say state media suffer from outdated equipment damaged by warfare, as well as from chronic funding shortages.


2004 Documented Cases – Central African Republic

FEBRUARY 25, 2004
Posted: March 3, 2004
Updated: March 17, 2004

Judes Zossé, L'Hirondelle
IMPRISONED

Police officers arrested Zossé, director of the private daily L'Hirondelle (The Swallow), after the newspaper reproduced an article on February 23, titled "General Bozizé: the State's Tax-collector."

The article, which originally ran on the news Web site Centrafrique-presse.com, alleged that Bozizé, who declared himself president after a March 2003 coup, has personally taken over the collection of state tax revenue in CAR, prompting two senior Treasury officials to contemplate resignation. Centrafrique-presse.com is a France-based opposition Web site run by former President Ange-Félix Patassé's spokesperson Prosper N'Douba.

Zossé had turned himself in to authorities after police had detained his brother, Didier Zossé. Didier, who is in charge of printing the newspaper, was later released without charge.

On February 26, Judes Zossé was transferred from the police station to the N'Garagba Central Prison in the capital, Bangui. The transfer came after a hearing before the Bangui Court Prosecutor, who charged Zossé with "insulting the head of state," and refused a request by Zossé's lawyer to release the journalist pending his trial.

The prosecutor asked for an 18-month prison sentence for Zossé. On March 12, the Bangui Court sentenced the journalist to six months in prison and a fine of 200,000 CFA francs (US$375). Zossé's lawyer told CPJ that he would appeal the sentence.

Zossé was released from prison on Friday, May 14, under a presidential pardon.

APRIL 16, 2004
Posted: April 28, 2004

Mathurin Constant Momet, Le Confident
Patrick Bakwa, Le Confident
HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION

Momet, publication director of the independent daily Le Confident, and Le Confident Editor-in-Chief Bakwa, were summoned to the police station in the morning because local lawyer Pierre Ouadda-Diale filed defamation charges against them.

The charges stemmed from a report about a press conference by Maximilien Boganda, a Central African businessman. Le Confident reported that during the press conference, Boganda criticized his former lawyer, Ouadda-Diale, and the CAR's judicial system.

Momet told a local radio station that the state prosecutor was keeping them in detention pending the return of Boganda, who is currently in France, to confirm or deny the statements attributed to him.

On April 17, the journalists were granted provisional release from police custody. However, on April 19, Momet and Bakwa were summoned to the gendarmerie in the capital, Bangui, and taken to the Prosecutor's Office, according to CPJ sources. They were informed that their trial would occur on Friday April 23.

The case was dropped after the parties reached an out-of-court settlement. On April 23, lawyer Ouadda-Diale withdrew his complaint after Le Confident published an article in its April 21 edition withdrawing its allegations against him and apologizing to the lawyer. The paper said it had been misled by Maximilien Boganda.

MAY 21, 2004
Posted: June 10, 2004

Corneille Wanguia-Vickot, Le Confident
HARASSED

Wanguia-Vickot, assistant editor-in-chief for the private daily Le Confident, was arrested by the police on the orders of Jules Bernard Ouandé, the junior interior minister.

Ouandé was angered by a series of articles the newspaper had published that implicated him in the misappropriation of 15 million CFA francs (US$29,000) at the interior ministry, according to Mathurin Momet, Le Confident editor-in-chief.

Ouandé asked Wanguia-Vickot to reveal the sources for an article he had written under the pen name Aimé Placit. When the journalist refused, Ouandé ordered the police to raid his home.

Wanguia-Vickot was released from detention in the afternoon of May 22.

JUNE 4, 2004
Posted: June 11, 2004

Zéphyrin Kaya, Radio Ndeke Luka
Jean-Louis Gondamoyen, Radio Ndeke Luka
Albert Willybiro-Pascy, Radio Ndeke Luka
Françoise Fernande Sackanot, Radio Ndeke Luka
Stéphane Patrick Akibata, Radio Ndeke Luka
THREATENED

All five journalists for the independent Radio Ndeke Luka, an initiative of the Switzerland-based Foundation Hirondelle, were threatened with arrest for their work by Jules Bernard Ouandé, the junior interior minister.

Ouandé was upset over a number of news items the radio station had recently covered, beginning with a broadcast on May 10, according to sources in the capital, Bangui. During the program, one of the presenters read an article from the local newspaper Le Confident that had implicated Ouandé in the misappropriation of 15 million CFA francs (US$29,000) at the interior ministry.

Shortly after the program aired, Ndeke Luka began receiving threats by telephone. Ouandé publicly called it a hate radio station, comparing it to the Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in Rwanda, local sources said.

Two other programs seemed to have angered the junior minister as well. The first was a program by Kaya, Gondamoyen, and Willybiro-Pascy, producers and journalists with the station. The three reported on the local police's practice of extorting money from Chadian merchants.

The second program was the work of radio presenters Sackanot and Akibata. The two reported on a Chadian merchant who had been arrested and allegedly beaten to death by the police.

On June 4, Ouandé summoned Reinhart Mozer and Jean Lambert, the station's director and editor in chief, respectively, to his office, where he asked them to punish the five journalists for their work. When Mozer and Lambert refused, Ouandé phoned the director-general of police and ordered him to arrest the five journalists, Lambert told CPJ.

Mozer and Lambert later contacted Parfait M'baye, the communications minister, to inform him of the arrest order. M'baye intervened on the journalists' behalf, and the arrest order was dropped.

Journalists at Ndeke Luka said they remain fearful that Ouandé could order them arrested at any time.

JULY 8, 2004
Updated: August 10, 2004

Maka Gbossokotto, Le Citoyen
IMPRISONED, LEGAL ACTION

Gbossokotto, publication director of the private, French-language daily Le Citoyen, was arrested in the capital, Bangui, following a defamation suit brought by the former director of CAR's national power company, Jean-Serge Wafio. After appearing before a prosecutor, Gbossokotto was charged with defamation and slander, according to a local organization of publishers known by its French acronym GEPPIC. The journalist was transferred to the N'Garagba Central Prison in Bangui on July 12.

The suit stems from a series of articles published in Le Citoyen accusing Wafio of mismanagement and embezzlement, according to local sources and international news reports. After the articles were published, Wafio was dismissed from his position.

Gbossokotto's arrest came the same day that Communications Minister Parfait Mbaye read a statement on state radio criticizing the private press. Mbaye accused "certain members of the private press" of "disinformation, manipulation, and damaging the image of the highest members of government," according to Agence France-Presse (AFP). It was unclear what articles provoked the statement, according to local sources.

Private newspapers in CAR refused to publish their editions for one week to protest Gbossokotto's imprisonment.

In a July 14 interview Gbossokotto gave AFP from prison, the journalist said he was being jailed because he had criticized a powerful figure. "One can't denounce, expose, or raise questions about businessman Jean-Serge Wafio, because he's close to the head of state and therefore untouchable," Gbossokotto said. He gave the interview during a visit by the government's human rights commissioner, Thierry Maleyombo, who told journalists that the government did not order Gbossokotto imprisoned, according to the Panafrican News Agency.

Gbossokotto's trial occurred on July 16. On August 9, the court in Bangui sentenced him to a 12-month suspended jail term and a 500,000 CFA franc (US$960) fine for printing "public insults" against Wafio. Gbossokotto was also charged with defamation, but the court dismissed those charges. Gbossokotto was released the same day.

Gbossokotto told CPJ he was "very disappointed" by the court's decision, and that it represented a miscarriage of justice. The journalist told CPJ that by dismissing the defamation charges, the court acknowledged that his report was true. However, the public insult charge was retained and stemmed from Gbossokotto writing that Wafio was a "predator." His lawyers are appealing on grounds of procedural and legal errors.

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