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Newspaper editor held on charge of "inciting a disturbance of the peace"

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders has called for the release of Faustin Bambou, the editor of the privately-owned weekly "Les Collines de l'Oubangui", who was arrested on 11 January 2008 and charged on 15 January with "inciting a disturbance of the peace" and "rebelling against the country's institutions" because of an article accusing two government ministers of embezzlement.

"This is unfortunately not the first time the authorities have sidestepped the press law on defamation in order to improperly detain a journalist," the press freedom organisation said. "If Bambou has defamed anyone, throwing him in prison is not the appropriate response, nor is it politically intelligent."

Reporters Without Borders added: "When the Central African Republic decided to abolish jail terms for press offences, it was undertaking to respect the principle that journalists should not be punished by means of imprisonment. This principle is now being openly flouted."

Bambou was arrested by the gendarmerie's criminal investigation department after being "invited" by telephone to go and see the state prosecutor, who questioned him about an article accusing two ministers of improperly receiving 7 billion CFA francs (10.5 million euros) from Areva, a French company that recently invested in uranium deposits in the northeastern Bakouma region.

The prosecutor, who had opened the investigation on his own initiative, without receiving a complaint from the ministers, claimed that the article had prolonged a strike launched by civil servants on 2 January to press demands for payment of two months of salary arrears.

The ministers concerned had referred the article to the High Council for Communication (HCC), the entity that is supposed to handle media disputes. Reporters Without Borders was unsuccessful in its attempts to mediate in the case and to have the charges against Bambou changed. He was formally charged and placed in pre-trial detention on 15 January.

A law providing for imprisonment for press offences was repealed by the country's transitional parliament on 25 November 2004. But this did not prevent Michel Alkhaly-Ngady, the head of a print media union and editor of the "Temps Nouveaux" newspaper, from being imprisoned for two months in early 2007 for allegedly "obstructing the law and institutions of the republic." The authorities accused him of encouraging the editor of the weekly "Le Centrafricain" to disregard an HCC decision finding a series of his articles to be "dangerous" (see IFEX alerts of 3 and 2 April and 14 March 2007).

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