March 3, 2008
President Idriss Deby Itno
President of the Republic of Chad
c/o The Embassy of Chad to the United States
2002 R Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20009
Via facsimile: (202) 265-1937
Dear Mr. President,
We are writing to express our alarm about the increasing restrictions against Chad's once-vibrant independent media, particularly following the deadly rebel assault on the capital, N'djamena, in early February.
We are calling on you to use all your influence to end a pattern of blanket media censorship in place since 2006; repeal repressive amendments to the press law; ensure that the government unseal the studios of activist radio station FM Liberté; and provide guarantees for the safe return of at least 14 independent journalists forced into hiding in recent weeks.
As a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization of journalists committed to supporting our colleagues around the world, we are concerned that these restrictions criminalize independent or critical journalism and gravely undermine the democratic credentials of Chad.
Since decreeing a nationwide state of emergency on February 14, the government has banned any coverage of the armed rebellion, according to a memorandum sent to media outlets by Communication High Council President Dedjebe Tirengaye Bob and obtained by CPJ. In a separate memorandum to media outlets, Hassana Abdoulaye, the chief of N'djamena's Presidential Support Mission in charge of the implementation of the emergency measures, ordered all newsrooms to refrain from issuing any information "endangering national unity."
On February 20, during an interview with public broadcaster Radio Nationale Tchadienne, Communications Minister Hourmadji Moussa Doumgor said the restrictions were justifiable wartime measures, according to local journalists. Several journalists quoted Doumgor as calling independent newspapers the "relays of the aggressors."
In protest of pre-publication censorship by state censorship committees, three leading private newspapers--N'djamena Bi-Hebdo, Le Temps and L'Observateur--suspended their publications on February 18, according to news reports and local journalists. Only the pro-government daily Le Progrès continued to publish.
Private radio stations also either suspended or reduced their news bulletins, debate shows or live programs since February 22 to protest pre-broadcast censorship, according to Gapili Misset, the president of the Chadian Union of Private Radios. Speaking on behalf of the 18 stations of the Union, Misset said the stations would resume their normal programs once the government relaxes the restrictions.
To make matters worse, a February 20 presidential decree unilaterally amended the press law to effectively criminalize critical coverage of sensitive topics--including government affairs, the armed rebellion led by former aides of your government, and ethnic relations. For instance, the unprecedented offense of "collusion with the enemy" is punishable by as many as three years in prison, while "offending the president," a new offense, carries a maximum of five years in prison (Article 48). The decree also introduces new requirements to launch newspapers, including filing statements with the public prosecutor and the Communications High Council.
Notwithstanding the events of the past few weeks, the Chadian independent press was already the target of government harassment over its coverage of Chadian current affairs, according to CPJ research.
On January 16, police raided and sealed the studios of FM Liberté, a radio station launched by local human rights activists, in connection with broadcasts critical of the government, including interviews of opposition supporters and the reading of a consumer advocacy group's petition to Interior and Security Minister Ahmat Mahamat Bâchir. Station Director Djekourninga Kaoutar Lazare spent two days in police custody over the broadcasts, but the station remains closed under police guard, according to local journalists.
On December 24, Minister Bâchir summoned Michael Didama, director of the private weekly Notre Temps in his office and threatened him after the paper reprinted an article from the French satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné, according to news reports and local journalists. Le Canard's story suggested French troops were suffering to carry out France's commitment to save the government, according to CPJ research.
Just days before, on December 20, Agence de Presse Africaine, a pan-African news agency, quoted Minister Bâchir as saying that he would "break the pen of journalists who write nonsense." The comments were in response to an editorial of Notre Temps Managing Director Nadjikimo Bénoudjita harshly critical of your record in office. Bénoudjita was held for three days and charged with inciting ethnic and religious hatred, according to his lawyer. He later went into hiding after police seized all copies of the paper and temporarily sealed the premises.
Bénoudjita was one of at least 14 independent journalists, most of them from Notre Temps and FM Liberté, who went into hiding in recent weeks, according to CPJ research. The majority of these journalists fled following the rebel assault on N'djamena, but they told CPJ that they feared government reprisals if they returned.
Increasing tensions and mistrust characterize the relations between the government and the independent press. Misset of the Union of Radios told CPJ that the government should work with the private press as partners for the development of the country. "We had hoped for the government to use the information we report, when we speak out about injustice for instance, to correct the problems; instead, we are seen as part of the problem."
Blanket censorship of information deprives the public of its fundamental right to information as guaranteed by Article 27 of Chad's Constitution, and criminalizing critical coverage undermines basic democratic principles enshrined in international law and declarations, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.
We call on you to ensure that the media is able to work unhindered and without fear of harassment during this crucial time in your country. Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your reply.