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Growing threat to news media from political tension

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders is very concerned about the still fraught political situation in Madagascar and its constant impact on the media. Several journalists have been harassed in recent weeks, a website was mysteriously blocked and a radio journalist was held for two weeks after being the victim of a heavy-handed arrest.

"We are alarmed by the current climate of mistrust towards journalists," Reporters Without Borders said. "The political tension does not justify the often shocking methods used by the police and military against journalists, especially opposition journalists. We urge Andry Rajoelina's government to stop these practices, defuse the situation and demonstrate its respect for press freedom."

Reporters Without Borders added: "We are nonetheless aware that the ongoing political crisis in Madagascar has sometimes led to excesses on the part of the news media and we reiterate our appeal to all journalists to behave responsibly, not take sides and avoid stirring up violence or hatred."

Members of a plain-clothes police unit known as the CNME arrived with a search warrant at the home of Roland Didier Ravohangiharison, the manager of opposition radio Fahazavana, on the afternoon of 25 June 2009 and, as he was absent, they arrested his wife in order to make him turn himself in. They took her to a police station in Fiadanana, where she spent the night. Then they took her to CNME headquarters in Ambohibao.

Ravohangiharison finally turned himself in on 27 June to the CNME in Fiadanana, where he was interrogated several times over a period of three days. He was accused of "funding demonstrations in Magro," complicity in the escape of one of the demonstration leaders and disturbing the peace. But, after failing to find any evidence against him the CNME dropped the charges and freed him.

Jeannot Ramambazafy, a journalist who works for the website, received repeated death threats by telephone on 19 June, three days after posting an article with photos of supporters of deposed President Marc Ravalomanana creating a disturbance outside Madagascar's embassy in Paris. From the phone numbers, he established that one of the callers was a person of Madagascan origin living in a Paris suburb.

After being partially blocked in recent weeks for still unknown reasons, the Topmada website has finally suspended operations and posted the following message: "The Topmada adventure is taking a break for an indefinite period while awaiting a lasting national reconciliation for a better future."

The journalist who has spent the longest time in detention in the current crisis is Evariste Ramanantsoavina of Radio Mada, who was arrested at his home by masked soldiers at 5 a.m. (local time) on 5 May. After being forced to reveal the location from which the station was broadcasting clandestinely, soldiers went there, dismantled the transmitter and seized equipment. He was finally released on 20 May.

The continuing political tension in Madagascar is the consequence of a four-month power struggle between President Ravalomanana and Antananarivo Mayor Rajoelina that ended with Ravalomanana resigning on 17 March and the army endorsing Rajoelina as the country's new leader at the head of a transitional government. Regional assemblies are now being held with the aim of changing the constitution.

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