In January this year, the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of International PEN released a comprehensive report on how criminal defamation legislation is being used in Africa to silence print journalists who report on corruption, mismanagement, and other abuses of power. It looked at cases of defamation-related persecution in the 17 months to November 2007.
Now, three months into 2008, new prosecutions have continued apace, with seven individuals receiving prison sentences for defamation in five countries across the region—further evidence, were it needed, that in some states, far from diminishing, the use of such laws is actually becoming more widespread, WiPC says.
Eleven editors and journalists in four other countries face new charges and possible prison sentences. Hopes for significant legislative reform in Sierra Leone were raised as a journalists association sought repeal of the country's criminal defamation and "false news" laws, but faded in Chad, where the government increased the maximum penalty for these offences to three years in prison and the penalty for "insulting the president" to five years.
In Ivory Coast, Antoine Assalé Tiémoko, activist and occasional contributor to the daily Le Nouveau Réveil, was condemned to one year in prison for "libeling the prosecutor's office" and "contempt of court". His conviction on January 4, 208 stemmed from his December 14, 2007 opinion piece on judicial corruption, entitled "Justice, criminals, and corruption", in which Tiémoko used an imaginary country, as well as coded words and innuendo, to question the Ivorian minister of justice, the state prosecutor, and various judges, and to accuse them of corruption. Tiémoko, who is not a journalist but has apparently been given a prison sentence simply for expressing his opinion in print, is serving his prison sentence in Abdijan prison.
Faustin Bambou, editor of the privately-owned weekly Les Collines de l'Oubangui, in Central African Republic was sentenced on January 28 to six months' imprisonment and a fine on charges of libel, insult and incitement to revolt. The charges were based on the December 21, 2007 issue of the weekly, which printed an article on alleged corruption on the part of two government ministers. Bambou was released on February 23, having spent six weeks in prison, following a pardon by President François Bozizé.
Ibrahim Souley and Soumana Idrissa Maiga, managing editor and founder respectively of the bi-monthly Niger publication L'Enquêteur, were each sentenced on February 8 to one month in jail on libel charges filed by the minister for economy and finance. The charges stemmed from articles published on November 19, 2007 alleging that the minister was involved in granting state projects illegally and encouraging mismanagement of public finances. In a separate case, L'Eveil Plus editor Gourouza Aboubacar was arrested and detained in late February on two separate charges of defamation of a politician and contempt of justice. Although the defamation case was subsequently dropped, Aboudoucar was sentenced to one month in prison on March 6 for "bringing the Nigerian justice system into disrepute".
Charles Kabonero and Didas Gasana, managing editor and editor-in-chief of the Rwandan weekly Umuseso, were sentenced also on February 8 to one year in prison, suspended for two years, and a fine of approx. US$2,000. They were found guilty of defaming a businessman allegedly close to the ruling government. The May and June 2007 issues of Umuseso published articles describing the businessman's alleged financial problems, which reportedly forced him to move to South Africa in order to avoid charges.
Abdel Fettah Ould Abeidna, managing editor of the Mauritanian daily Al-Aqsa, was sentenced on February 11 to one year in prison for defaming a local businessman. In a May 16, 2007 article, Abeidna linked a businessman to a largescale cocaine racket in which a number of politicians had been implicated. Abeidna was also handed a massive fine of approx. US$1.2bn.
There have been reports of four further criminal defamation trials opened against journalists in Ethiopia, Malawi, Sudan and Sierra Leone. None are currently detained but all could be sentenced to prison terms.
In Ethiopia, Ezedin Mohamed, Maria Kadim and Ibrahim Mohamed, who work for two Muslim-oriented publications, were detained for almost two weeks in February on criminal defamation charges lodged by a religious leader. They had reprinted a letter, purportedly written by the leader, criticising the education minister's proposal to ban prayers at state schools. They were eventually released on a hefty bail payment of over US$2,000 each. In Malawi, journalist Make Chipalasa and editor James Mphande were charged the same month for an article quoting an opposition leader's criticism of the upcoming elections. In Sudan, five newspaper journalists and editors were briefly held following articles investigating the police, and some may be brought to prosecution. In Sierra Leone, editor Jonathan Leigh was charged with libel for an article suggesting corruption by a minister.
In Nigeria, the News editor Bayo Onanuga was assaulted earlier on January 20 after giving evidence in a libel suit against his magazine filed by the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP). The assailants were believed to be in the pay of PDP.
A glimmer of hope, says WiPC, came from Sierra Leone, where a national journalists association has reportedly mounted a legal challenge to the country's criminal libel and "false news" laws, which currently provide for prison terms of up to seven years. However, the outlook in Chad was considerably bleaker as the government took advantage of the state of emergency to introduce a new press law which increased the maximum penalty for publishing false news and defamation to three years in prison, and for "insulting the president" to five years. The move came despite several previous promises by the Chadian government to liberalise the press law.