After four and a half months in provisional detention, Radio Jupiter director Fernand Cello was freed on 26 September when a court gave him a suspended two-year jail sentence on charges of stealing a cheque and forgery. He was also sentenced to a fine (also suspended) of 720,000 ariarys (200 euros) – more than five times the average monthly salary.
Cello and his lawyer said they would appeal against his conviction. He is still due to be tried on a charge of defamation under the communication code and on charges of “malicious allegations” and “verbal death threats” under the criminal code, which are punishable by imprisonment. His trial on these three charges is scheduled for 20 October.
At the end of a three-hour hearing on 19 September, the court announced that it would issue a verdict on 26 September. The charges against Cello include stealing a cheque and forgery, for which he is facing a possible sentence of three months to five years in prison.
This charge was brought by Andry Maherllah, the owner of the local power company, who was criticized by Cello on the air in August 2016. However, according to the bank, the check concerned – which was issued and cashed in 2015 – was never declared stolen.
Cello is also charged with defamation but the court decided to put off hearing this charge until 20 October. His lawyer told RSF he did not know the reason for the postponement.
“These proceedings on trumped-up charges are clearly designed to keep an innocent journalist in prison because his coverage of abuse of authority has caused displeasure,” said Cléa Kahn-Sriber. “The prosecution case file is empty. We call for an end to this travesty of justice and for Fernand Cello’s immediate release.”
Radio targeted by local authorities
Ihorombe province’s only independent radio station, Radio Jupiter is located more than 700 km south of Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, in a mining region afflicted by trafficking and misgovernment. The station had paid dearly for its readiness to denounce collusion between private and public interests.
Cello had to be evacuated to Antananarivo in February 2016 after being badly beaten and still suffers from the after-effects of the injuries he received. Maherllah, the owner of the local power company, reacted to being criticized in an interview by disconnecting Radio Jupiter’s power supply in August 2016 but the station was able to continue broadcast by installing solar panels.
In December 2016, Radio Jupiter broadcast a report about the environmental damage resulting from the operations of the mining company Gondwana. A dozen solders confiscated its transmitter a few hours later on the pretext that it was “illegal” although the station had existed for 15 years. Cello went into hiding.
After emerging from hiding four months later, on 21 April, when the ministry of mining finally ordered Gondwana to suspend operations for contravening the mining code, Cello gave interviews to various media outlets, criticizing the judicial and political authorities in Ihorombe province.
He was arrested a few days later, on 6 May, as he left an Antananarivo hospital where he had been receiving treatment.
Madagascar’s media landscape is pluralist but uneven. The leading media outlets are owned by businessmen and politicians who influence editorial policy. A new communication law adopted in July 2015 was widely criticized by journalists because of the chilling effect of its penalties for media offences.
Madagascar is ranked 57th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.