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CPJ urges government to repeal repressive media law

(CPJ/IFEX) - The following is a 6 June 2008 CPJ letter to Chadian Prime Minister Youssouf Saleh Abbas:

His Excellency Youssouf Saleh Abbas
Prime Minister of the Republic of Chad
c/o The Embassy of Chad to the United States
2002 R Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20009
Via facsimile: (202) 265-1937

Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

We are heartened by your recent statements in support of a private, independent press, and we now urge you to further your commitment by pushing for the repeal of Presidential Decree 5.

The decree consists of criminal amendments to the press law, and was passed without debate by the parliament in February during a state of emergency and a period of blanket media censorship. It effectively criminalized critical coverage of sensitive topics - including government affairs, the armed rebellion led by former aides of your government, and ethnic relations. For instance, the offense of "collusion with the enemy" is punishable by as many as three years in prison, while "offending the president" carries a maximum of five years in prison (Article 48). The decree also introduces new, more stringent requirements to launch newspapers, including the filing of statements with the public prosecutor and the Communications High Council.

In a May 14 media stakeholders' conference at the Kimpinski Hotel in the capital, N'djamena, you declared that Presidential Decree 5 would be subject to parliamentary review, according to local journalists. In April, French daily "Libération" quoted Nassour Guélendouksia Ouaïdou, the president of Chad's National Assembly, as saying that he was opposed to the decree. We call on you to urge President Idriss Deby as well as members of parliament to repeal this repressive media legislation, which is out of step with Chad's democratic gains in recent years.

We are also concerned about conditions for foreign journalists who wish to work in Chad, since the government withdrew freelancer Sonia Rolley's work permit in March without explanation, forcing her to leave the country. Rolley, who works for several France-based media outlets, including Radio France Internationale and Agence France-Presse, was the lone foreign permanent correspondent in the country, according to CPJ research. In a telephone interview with CPJ this week, the newly appointed communication minister, Mahamat Hissène, said he did not have any information on the Rolley matter, saying it preceded his arrival in office. The government welcomed accreditation applications from any foreign journalist, he added.

Since taking office in mid-April, the government under your leadership has struck a remarkably different tone of openness and dialogue with the private press. On Monday, Hissène officially authorized private weekly "Notre Temps" to resume publishing, according to local journalists and news reports. The same day, activist radio station FM Liberté resumed broadcasting for the first time since January 16 when police summarily closed the station, Program Director Eleyakim Dokpane Vanambyl told CPJ. Most of the journalists who had fled into hiding, fearing government reprisals, in early February after the army repelled a rebel assault on N'djamena, have also returned to the country, according to CPJ research.

Your recent comments in support of press freedom ended a pattern of hostile statements from top Chadian officials toward the independent press, according to local journalists. In a March television interview with France-based international broadcaster France24 for instance, President Idriss Deby declared: "There are obviously Chadian journalists who are a bit similar to Radio Milles Collines of 1994, which ignited the genocide in Rwanda."

The Senegal-based Agence de Presse Africaine quoted you as saying on May 14 that the private press "is not, and will not be an adversary" of your government. "We will do everything within our power to help the private press, because it is an important element of our democracy," you were also quoted as saying.

As a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization of journalists dedicated to supporting our colleagues worldwide, we would like to encourage your government to continue promoting a culture of dialogue with the independent press to address mutual challenges. We urge you to continue taking the positive steps you have made toward restoring your country's once-vibrant free press and persist in your work to repeal Presidential Decree 5.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We await your reply.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director

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