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Behind President Ismaël Omar Guelleh’s obliging facade lies a former member of the French colonial police who reins in political freedoms and tolerates no media diversity. Referred to as IOG by Djiboutians, he began a third term in April 2011 after an election boycotted by part of the opposition. Under his rule, the country has increasingly cut itself off from the world and suppressed criticism. The NGO International Democracy, which had come to observe the election, was expelled in March.
Djibouti is a media black hole. Foreign journalists are turned away and the government maintains a monopoly on domestic news and information by means of ubiquitous state-owned media that do what they are told. One after another, all the opposition newspapers have been closed by the courts or by means of the economic asphyxiation which the government uses to gag the media. Le Renouveau, a newsletter published by the Movement for Democratic Renewal and Development (MRD), had to close in May 2007 after months of harassment.
Only four national media are permitted. They are Radio Télévision Djiboutienne, La Nation and Al Qaran (La Nation’s Arabic-language version), which are controlled by the culture and communication ministry, and Le Progrès, a newsletter published by the ruling Popular Rally for Progress (RPP). All four take a pro-government line.
The 1992 Freedom of Communication Law itself poses a challenge to freedom of expression, investigative journalism and media pluralism. It provides for prison sentences for media offences and imposes age and nationality limits on anyone wanting to launch a news outlet. The creation of a National Communication Commission with the power to issue radio and TV broadcasting licences has been on hold since 1992.
The local FM transmitter of Radio France Internationale (RFI) was closed in January 2005 after it carried reports about French judge Bernard Borrel’s 1995 murder in Djibouti but RFI’s short-wave broadcasts can still be received. The BBC and Voice of America can also be received in Djibouti but they are rarely carrying any sensitive reporting on the country. The percentage of the population that has an Internet connection is still very small but Facebook is very popular among those that do.
The government arrested dozens of its political opponents in February 2011 following calls for protests circulating on social networks, which the authorities are struggling to control. Those detained included six people who provide reports or information to La Voix de Djibouti, an opposition radio station that broadcasts from Europe on the shortwave and Internet. They were arrested as a preventive measure ahead of the demonstrations and were held in Gabode prison for four months without trial for “participating in an insurrectional movement.” One of them, Farah Abadid Hildid, was tortured by intelligence officials before being transferred to the prison.
Updated in August 2011
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