Reporters Without Borders strongly condemns the return of censorship to Madagascar in the form of orders to the state-owned media not to cover opposition demonstrations. The press freedom organisation is also worried by the closure of Radio Mada, a station that supports former President Marc Ravalomanana, and acts of vandalism against other pro-Ravalomanana media.
"Already badly hit by the crisis that lasted from December 2008 to March 2009, the media are again the target of alarming measures, some of them being executed in a heavy-handed fashion," Reporters Without Borders said.
"While punishing appeals for hate or violence, President Andry Rajoelina must guarantee the free expression of opinions as well as complete and neutral coverage of demonstrations," Reporters Without Borders added. "We are disturbed by the course of events. The current political and institutional instability does not justify the return of censorship."
Public media censored
The High Authority for Transition established by Rajoelina in March showed initial signs of goodwill by letting the state-owned media cover opposition activities. Télévision Nationale Malgache (TVM) and Radio Nationale Malgache (RNM) were able to cover demonstrations and invite such leading opposition members as Olivier Rakotovazaha and Constant Raveloson to participate in the Sunday programme "Savaravina" and other programmes.
But various sources say that both TVM and RNM were recently ordered to impose a news blackout on the opposition demonstrations in Ambohijatovo and elsewhere.
This was denied by TVM interim director Johary Ravaojanahary, who told Reporters Without Borders: "No one is preventing us, here at TVM, from reporting what is happening at Ambohijatovo." Speaking on condition of anonymity, a TVM journalist took the same position. "I have never, personally, received any ban regarding coverage of opposition demonstrations."
But this was contradicted by another journalist. Also speaking on condition of anonymity, he said: "Effectively there is censorship. Higher instances are putting pressure on the editor in chief to forbid journalists from going to cover the demonstrations."
Radio Mada closed, Télé Mada transmitter dismantled
A group of masked soldiers forcibly removed Télé Mada's transmitter and ordered Radio Mada to close on the night of 19 April. Both of these privately-owned media support former President Ravalomanana.
The government accused the two stations of violating broadcasting regulations. The newly-appointed communications minister, Gilbert Raharizatovo, said: "Télé Mada is a pirate station because it does not have a proper broadcast frequency and causes interference to other TV stations. It has not filed a request for an official operating licence with the authorities."
Officials accused Radio Mada of "inciting civil disobedience and undermining the public's confidence in institutions." Both presenters and members of the public speaking on the air had "incited listeners to unleash a civil war," they added.
Ravalomanana supporters went to the high court on 20 April in order to hand in a letter to the public prosecutor protesting against the seizure of broadcasting equipment from Radio Mada, Radio Fahazavana and Télé Mada. One person was killed and at least 13 were injured when the police used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the demonstrators.
Communications ministry created
As he had promised to journalists on 30 March, President Rajoelina has created a communications ministry, a first in Madagascar, where the sector has never had an independent ministry in the past. The new minister, Raharizatovo, is a journalist who worked at RNM and TVM. He was appointed on 17 April.
Reporters Without Borders believes one of the ministry's priorities should be to draft a communications law that clarifies the rules for the media and prevents abuses. The law should also ensure that the public has access to balanced news and information.
"The public did not get this when the TV stations that have 80 of the country's viewers failed to mention the opposition demonstrations at a peak viewing time," Reporters Without Borders added.