When a coup occurs somewhere in the world, journalists are usually the first to be sidelined. Beyond the classic scene of a new leader addressing the nation and promising democracy, stability, and wealth, reporters are usually simply undesirable within the new leadership's entourage.
In Niger, things
were a little different last February, when a military junta put an end to President Mamadou Tandja’s ambitions to stay in power by means of a constitutional
amendment. The video showing the junta members surrounded by local
reporters impelled me to propose covering the coup's aftermath.
Once I got
the go-ahead from my employer in Qatar, Al-Jazeera, I applied for
accreditation. But, the cameraman who was going to accompany me had an Iraqi
passport and therefore needed a visa. So began an ordeal. Uncertainty was
haunting Niger’s diplomatic
representations to the point that the consulate would not take the “risk” to
give my colleague the visa without Niamey’s
green light. Ironically, we received a prompt positive response to our
accreditation request. After two weeks of waiting, finally came the long
mission to Niger,
I knew little about this country but I had an idea about its media landscape. Last year, I met with Nigerien
journalist Seidik Abba in Doha, and he dedicated his book Niger’s Press: State of Affairs and
to me. Previously, the names of Moussa Kaka or Abdoulaye
Tiémogo were often cited by media or organizations defending press freedom.
We arrived at Niamey
airport around midnight. Plainclothes policemen intercepted us. A camera always
draws police attention in such circumstances. After a quarter of an hour of
waiting, we were allowed to move. Our fixer was waiting for us. Djibril Saïdou is a young
journalist I knew through his articles for a pan-African agency based in Dakar. Outside the
airport, it was very hot, and the city was badly lit.
But beneath this stifling atmosphere, there was a fresh air trickling
into the country. It came from journalists who managed to restore nobility to
When Tandja overstayed his
term in office last year, journalists were at the forefront of a nationwide protest movement.
Tiémogo, editor of the independent Le Canard Déchaîné, paid a heavy
price for his critical articles. When he received me at his tiny office, he was
breathing a sigh of relief. “I struggled for one year and a half,” said
Tiémogo, the last journalist to be sent behind
Tandja’s regime. Now that Tandja has been dethroned, Tiémogo said he will keep
up pressure on the new ruling elite. “I am ready to resume my pen against any
other regime that would dare to violate the constitution,” he said.
The ruling military junta
has already been subject to strong criticism. The local press has doubts over
the willingness of the military regime to overcome the current political crisis
and it raised fears that the situation could drag on. The junta has already
ruled through the duration of the transition period, but it is still dithering over the
way to deal with local and foreign journalists, sowing more uncertainty. During
our trip, they were unwilling to give us an interview. However, we made our
stories without any kind of interference, which is a breakthrough considering
Since Tandja’s ouster, no
journalist has been prosecuted and no newspaper has been confiscated. Quite the
contrary: Two journalists have been appointed members of the Advisory Board,
which is assigned the task of assisting the military junta in preparing the
transition period. This state of affairs left me perplexed. In other countries
where political stability is real fact, there is less freedom. For example, when
you compare Niger’s
press landscape to the one in the Arab world, the gap is wide. For example, while Nigerien journalists are questioning the military nature
of the new local leadership, it is unthinkable that their colleagues in the
Arab world could devote an article to military institutions, even if it is to discuss
Although I won’t immediately dare talk of a turning point, there is much
hope for a better tomorrow for the Nigerien press after several years of asphyxiation.
Bassam Bounenni is a Tunisian journalist who works for
Al-Jazeera in Doha, Qatar.