OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Pretrial hearings for two French journalists facing a possible death sentence for “undermining state security” in the West African state of Niger got underway Tuesday, Jan. 15.
The journalists, Pierre Creisson and Thomas Dandois, both employed by the Franco-German TV Arte, were arrested on Dec. 17 for interviewing Tuareg rebels in northern Niger, in violation of a state law against any broadcast of activities associated with the 11-month old northern rebellion.
The two journalists initially told Niger authorities that they would be traveling to the southern part of the country to compile a report on bird flu, but surreptitiously traveled north against the government ban to speak to members of the rebel movement. They were arrested shortly before arriving back in Niamey, the capital.
The government has long portrayed the Mouvement des Nigériens pour la justice (MNJ), the group spearheading the rebellion, as bandits and drug smugglers with little or no support from the general population of northern Niger.
Aid organizations have complained that because of violence and government decree, the north of Niger has largely been sealed off, making emergency operations impossible.
The indigenous and formally pastoral Tuaregs claim the government is not fulfilling economic development and political agreements contained in a 1995 peace deal, which ended their 1990s uprising. According to a Voice of America reporter once imbedded with the MNJ, mineral revenues from the uranium-rich north lie at the heart of the group’s grievances.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented numerous human rights abuses by combatants on both sides of the conflict.
On Jan. 8, private radio director Abdou Mahaman Jeannot was killed when his Toyota drove over a landmine in a suburb of Niamey, the first attack on the capital since hostilities began. A woman passenger was also injured.
The MNJ has adamantly denied the use of land mines, but Human Rights Watch is not buying it.
At the pre-trial hearing in Niamey, the journalist Creisson was called before the prosecutor, but his colleague Dandois remains in prison some 30 km south of the capital. Their attorney says the judge will begin examining the evidence involved in the case. Agence France-Presse reports that Niger military sources have viewed the video filmed by the journalists and found scenes of soldiers captured by the MNJ in chains.
The trial highlights a steady decline of press freedom in the country, where a total of 14 journalists have been arrested since mid-2007 for breaking the government’s information edict relating to the rebellion.
The Accra-based Media Foundation for West Africa recently tallied the number of “attacks on freedom of speech and expression” against journalists across West Africa in 2007 and found Niger committed 23 of the total 142 cases, the highest amount in the region. However, the group offers two caveats regarding its indicators: It cannot monitor events taking place far outside urban areas and it merely counts cases, but does not weigh them for significance.
Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index ranks Niger favorably compared to some other West African nations.