|In 1996, Col. Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara dragged Niger back to authoritarian rule when he overthrew the country's first democratically elected government. Now Niger's repressive climate threatens free expression as well. A wave of retribution has fallen on the independent press as journalists try to report on pro-democracy demonstrations and strikes by unpaid civil servants.|
In April, as opposition parties' supporters demonstrated in the streets of Niamey, the government barred private radio stations from broadcasting "news and statements" likely to "increase political tension" in the country -- an effective ban on opposition statements and coverage of their activities. In May, after Moussa Tchangari, editor in chief of the independent weekly Alternative, read a statement on the air signed by local journalists and foreign correspondents protesting the ban on Radio Anfani, presidential guards arrested him as he walked out of the station's offices. Security forces routinely violate constitutionally -- and internationally -- recognized free expression standards with impunity, including attacking journalists covering demonstrations. And when the minister of the interior personally horsewhipped a journalist in his office with no official repercussions, journalists understood that the government was setting the stage for even worse punishment if they continued to defy the state's dictates.
Niger's citizens have vigorously supported the country's independent media. In fact, their vocal support may have very well saved the life of Grémah Boucar, the director of Radio Anfani and a 1998 recipient of CPJ's International Press Freedom Award, who has repeatedly been arrested, harassed, and threatened for his journalistic work in both print and broadcast media. In April, security agents and police abducted Boucar from his home, tied him up, and threw him into a sack, where he listened as his captors discussed how they would dispose of his body. His life was saved, he said, only when one policeman pointed out that since Boucar's family had witnessed his arrest, they would be able to identify the killers.
In July, following protests by local and international journalists and human rights organizations, the government repealed a provision of a restrictive 1997 press law that established mandatory sentences for crimes such as "insulting the president." The repeal allows courts to impose suspended sentences or consider mitigating circumstances in sentencing journalists.
In October 1997, the president of the High Council for Communication (CSC) announced that all newspapers that do not have a professionally licensed chief editor would be suspended from publishing. The CSC also ordered private radio stations to stop broadcasting live international news programs such as those of the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Voice of America -- closing the country to outside information. Independent radio station managers were required to sign a contract accepting liability for any future charges that might result from such broadcasts.