Defamation and ‘insult’: writers react

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20 March 2008


In January 2008, the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of International PEN released a report on how criminal defamation legislation is used in Africa to silence print journalists who report on corruption, mismanagement and other abuses of power. The report looked at cases of defamation-related persecution in the 17 months to November 2007. Sadly, in the first two months of 2008, new prosecutions have continued apace, with at least seven individuals receiving prison sentences for alleged 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. A further 11 editors and journalists in four other countries face new defamation charges and possible prison sentences. Meanwhile, 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.


New prison sentences for criminal defamation (January - February 2008):


  • IVORY COAST:  On 4 January 2008, Antoine Assalé Tiémoko, activist and occasional contributor to the daily Le Nouveau Réveil, was condemned to one year in prison for ‘libelling the prosecutor’s office’ and ‘contempt of court’. His conviction stemmed from his 14 December 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 (See RAN 05/08 - 31 January 2008). 


  • CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: On 28 January, Faustin Bambou: editor of the privately-owned weekly Les Collines de l’Oubangui, was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and a fine on charges of libel, insult and incitement to revolt. The charges were based on the 21 December 2007 issue of the weekly, which printed an article on alleged corruption on the part of two government ministers. Bambou was released on 23 February 2008, having spent six weeks in prison, following a pardon by President François Bozizé. [See RAN 06/08 – 6 February 2008, and Update #1 to RAN 06/08 – 3 March 2008]


  • NIGER - On 8 February, Ibrahim Souley and Soumana Idrissa Maiga,  managing editor and founder respectively of the bi-monthly publication L’Enquêteur, were each sentenced to one month in jail on libel charges filed by the Minister of Economy and Finance. The charges stem from articles published on 19 November 2007 alleging that the Minister was involved in granting state projects illegally and encouraging mismanagement of public finances. Souley and Maiga were also ordered to pay the Minister a symbolic fine of 40,000 Francs (around 60 Euros) each. Their defence lawyer said they would appeal the decision (See RAN 09/08 - 15 February 2008). In a separate case in Niger, 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 6 March for ‘bringing the Nigerien justice system into disrepute’ (see RAN 14/08 – 13 March 2008).


  • RWANDA: Also on 8 February, Charles Kabonero and Didas Gasana, managing editor and editor-in-chief of the weekly Umuseso, were sentenced to one year in prison, suspended for two years, and a fine of approx. US$2,000. Both editors were found guilty of defaming a businessman who is allegedly close to the ruling government in Rwanda. 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. The sentence is being appealed.


  • MAURITANIA: On 11 February, Abdel Fettah Ould Abeidna, managing editor of the daily Al-Aqsa, was sentenced to one year in prison for defaming a local businessman. In a 16 May 2007 article, Abeidna linked a businessman to a large-scale cocaine racket in which a number of politicians had been implicated. Abeidna was also handed a massive fine of approx. US$1.2bn. According to the WiPC’s information, Abeidna is not currently in Mauritania.


Other defamation-related attacks on free expression (January - February 2008):
International PEN WiPC also received reports of four further criminal defamation trials opened against journalists in Ethiopia, Malawi, Sudan and Sierra Leone in February 2008. 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. The journalists 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; the case remains under investigation. In Malawi, journalist Make Chipalasa and editor James Mphande were charged in February 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 government Minister.


Attacks were not limited to law suits. In Nigeria, The News editor Bayo Onanuga was assaulted on 20 January 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 the PDP.


A glimmer of hope 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.


International PEN considers the jailing or threatening journalists with criminal conviction for alleged defamation is in direct violation of their right to free expression guaranteed by the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which all African states are party, as well as the majority of national constitutions.


PEN’s WiPC thanks all PEN members and other individuals who have taken action in its campaign against criminal defamation in Africa so far and encourages continued action on further applications of such laws against those who practice their right to freedom of expression. The report and Recommended Action paper are available in English and French at: PEN Africa Criminal Defamation Report and Actions (English) and Diffamation Criminelle en Afrique (French).


International PEN’s WiPC will continue to monitor and report on criminal defamation cases in Africa, and to push for African states to review their defamation laws and review any criminal restrictions on content, in line with the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, and other international human rights standards. 




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