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.