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"Nouveau Courrier" journalists acquitted on criminal charges, due to be released

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders welcomes the 26 July 2010 decision by an Abidjan criminal court to acquit the editor, managing editor and publisher of the "Nouveau Courrier" d'Abidjan newspaper, who had originally been charged with theft of an official document, publishing information about a judicial case that has not yet been tried and revealing a confidential document.

The three journalists, editor Saint Claver Oula, publisher Stéphane Guédé and managing editor Théophile Kouamouo, who were arrested on 13 July, were however convicted of a lesser charge. Abidjan prosecutor Raymond Tchimoub's press officer, Patrice Pohé, who allegedly leaked a confidential report to them, was also acquitted. He had been held since 23 July.

"We take note of the three journalists' acquittal," Reporters Without Borders said. "We are relieved that the court dismissed the charges brought under criminal law and focused on those relating to Côte d'Ivoire's press freedom law, which excludes imprisonment. We nonetheless condemn the fact that the journalists remained in detention throughout the proceedings."

Pohé's trial began on 26 July. A journalist by profession who is also the president of the National Conference of Côte d'Ivoire Publishers, he allegedly leaked a report about corruption in the coffee and cocoa trade. The prosecutor's official requested a two-month jail sentence and a fine of 100,000 CFA francs (150 euros) for Pohé on charges of theft of an official document and revealing a confidential document.

The prosecutor's office meanwhile changed one of the charges against the "Nouveau Courrier" journalists from theft of an official document to receiving a stolen official document, and asked the court to sentence them to a month in prison and a fine of 5 million CFA francs (7,500 euros).

After deliberation, the court dismised the theft charge against Pohé on the grounds that it had not been established that anything was stolen and acquitted Oula, Guédé and Kouamouo of receiving a stolen document. But it found the three "Nouveau Courrier" journalists guilty on the charge of publishing information about a judicial case that has not yet been tried and sentenced them under article 73 of the 2004 press law to a fine of 5 million CFA francs (7,500 euros) and suspended the newspaper for two weeks.

Reporters Without Borders said: "We urge the authorities to relax the laws applied to press offences. Contrary to what Côte d'Ivoire's laws say, publishing information and reports about matters that have not yet come to trial is part of an investigative journalist's work. In many countries, this freedom allows the media to reveal subjects of public interest, inform the public about sensitive issues, prevent information from being suppressed and assist with an investigation."

The press freedom organisation added: "This is an essential condition for journalists to be independent of the judicial and political authorities, who decide which cases are opened and which are closed. Côté d'Ivoire, which already took a big step forward as regards press freedom when it decriminalised press offences in 2004, has the possibility of improving its legislation, bringing it into line with international standards and reinforcing fundamental rights."

Oula, Guédé, Kouamouo and Pohé were all due to be released on 27 July.

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