Reporters Without Borders is worried by the criminal proceedings that the CAR authorities have initiated against three journalists and urges the media and the transitional authorities to defuse the tension in their relations.
Last week, two newspaper editors were arrested and taken before a judge on charges of libelling President Catherine Samba Panza in articles. They are now being held in Bangui prison. A warrant was issued for the arrest of a third journalist, who is on the run.
The arrests were carried out although the newspapers had already been suspended by a special court of peers, which includes representatives of the Observatory for Central African Media (OMCA) and the Union of Central African Journalists (UJCA).
“While deploring the quality of these articles, which the UJCA president himself described as worthy of ‘gutter press,’ we are disturbed to see journalists detained for offences that have been decriminalized for nearly ten years under the 2005 press law,” said Cléa Kahn-Sriber, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Africa Desk.
“We would also like to know the legal grounds used by state prosecutor Ghislain Gresenguet for issuing the warrants for the arrest of these three journalists, inasmuch as the main person concerned, the president, did not bring a complaint against theses publications.”
Arrested on 14 and 15 April respectively, Le Palmarès editor Régis Zouiri and Le Peuple editor Patrick Stéphane Akibata appeared in court on charges of “insulting the president,” “defamation,” “public insult” and “attacking internal state security” and were then taken to Bangui prison.
Only the last of the four charges should be the subject of criminal proceedings. The third journalist, currently on the run, is Ferdinand Samba of Le Démocrate.
During the hearing on 8 April before the court of peers, attended by the deputy prosecutor, Le Peuple and Le Démocrate were sentenced to suspensions of one and two weeks respectively.
It is essential in the CAR’s current political and security crisis that the media and the authorities should each respect the roles and responsibilities of the other. The media’s right to freedom of expression is balanced by the duty to be accurate, to gauge the right tone to use, to verify sources and to corroborate facts.
At the same time, it would benefit the transitional authorities, which have duty to restore the rule of law as quickly as possible, if they were to ensure that the existing national laws are applied rather than misused for short-term objectives.
The Central African Republic fell from 65th to 109th position in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. This was the biggest fall of any of the 180 countries ranked in the index.