Reporters Without Borders condemned the two-month jail sentence imposed today on Michel Alkhaly-Ngady, head of the independent publishers organisation GEPPIC (Groupement des éditeurs de la presse privée et indépendante de Centrafrique), and called for his immediate release.
“The sentence is as absurd and dangerous as the conduct of the rest of the case and only worsens the conflict between the government and the media, seriously undermines the already tainted credibility of the national communications authority (HCC) and complicates any attempt at mediation,” the worldwide press freedom body said. “He must be freed before dialogue can resume.”
Alkhaly-Ngady, managing editor of the newspaper Temps Nouveaux, was also fined 300,000 CFA francs (€400). He was arrested in Bangui on 12 March, held for questioning and a court on 15 March ordered him provisionally detained for “obstructing the law and national institutions” pending trial. His lawyers said he would appeal against today's sentence.
GEPPIC, along with the national journalists' union UJCA and the national media monitoring centre OMCA, have cited the press law to dispute the authority of the HCC since President François Bozizé named a colonel and a pro-government insurance company manager as HCC members in January.
Alkhaly-Ngady was accused of encouraging the managing editor of the weekly Le Centrafricain to defy an HCC order for the paper to shut down for four issues after printing “dangerous” articles.
20.03.2007 Newspaper association's president begins second week in prison
Reporters Without Borders today condemned the continuing pretrial detention of Michel Alkhaly-Ngady, the head of the Group of Central African Privately-Owned and Independent Press Editors (GEPPIC), whose arrest on 12 March appears to have been the result of a refusal by GEPPIC and two other media groups to accept the authority of the High Council for Communication (HCC). His trial should have taken place yesterday but was postponed until 26 March.
“If all this is indeed due to a dispute between various entities, then there are absolutely no grounds for holding him and we call for his immediate release,” the press freedom organisation said. “The HCC appears to have chosen Alkhaly-Ngady, who is now entering his second week behind bars, as a scapegoat to intimidate the media groups that accuse it of not being sufficiently independent of the government.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “After the Central African Republic decriminalized press offences at the end of 2004, it would be regrettable if this trial and the lack of transparency surrounding this case were to set us back several years.”
Alkhaly-Ngady, who is also the publisher of the Temps Nouveaux newspaper, was arrested in Bangui on 12 March as a result of an HCC complaint. He was taken before prosecutors on 15 March and place in pretrial custody on a charge of “obstructing the law and the republic's institutions,” namely the HCC.
He is alleged to have encouraged the publisher of the weekly Le Centrafricain not to comply with a four-issue suspension imposed by the HCC as a punishment for a series of articles it considered “dangerous.” In January, the GEPPIC, the Union of Central African Journalists (JSCA) and the Central African Media Monitoring Body (OMCA) condemned the appointment by President François Bozizé of two of the HCC's members, and since then have refused to recognise its authority.
A request by Alkhaly-Ngady's lawyers for his provisional release was rejected and the trial was postponed until 26 March on the grounds that the presiding judge had not seen the case file. As a result, Alkhaly-Ngady is going to spend a second week in Bangui's Ngaragba prison. Reporters Without Borders hails the local media's decision not to publish yesterday in solidarity with Alkhaly-Ngady.