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Court imposes prison sentences for newspaper report on school essay that mocked imaginary president

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders voiced disappointment at the prison sentences imposed on 26 June 2007 on five journalists and a school teacher on charges of insulting President Amadou Toumani Touré, either directly or as accomplices, in connection with a school essay about an imaginary president's mistress.

The sentences passed on four of the journalists were suspended. The other journalist received a prison term that matched the time he had already been detained. Only the school teacher, who got a longer jail term, was not freed at the end of trial.

"The outcome of this trial was extremely disappointing, even if it resulted in the immediate release of all the journalists," Reporters Without Borders said. "The court saw fit to punish a crime of lese-majesté worthy of another age, while at the same time finding an apparent solution to the crisis."

The organisation added: "This case has damaged relations between the government and media, and has rendered a disservice to press freedom activists by setting a bad example to authoritarian governments, which will be able to argue that even democracies impose jail terms on journalists who supposedly attack the president."

Seydina Oumar Diarra, also known as "SOD," the "Info-Matin" reporter and author of the offending report, who was arrested on 14 June with school teacher Bassirou Kassim Minta, was sentenced to 13 days in prison, the number of days he had spent in pre-trial detention. Minta got two months.

"Info-Matin" editor Sambi Touré, who was arrested on 20 June like the other four journalists, got an eight-month suspended sentence. The other three editors - Ibrahima Fall of "Le Républicain", Alexis Kalambry of "Les Echos" and Hamèye Cissé of "Le Scorpion" - who reprinted the original SOD article in a show of solidarity, got three-month suspended sentences.

Minta, the teacher, was also fined 100,000 FCFA (150 euros) and was told he was banned from teaching. The other five defendants were each fined 200,000 FCFA (300 euros). The court barred the public from attending the trial on the grounds that it was a "sex case."

The state prosecutor's grounds for arresting the six defendants was SOD's article, headlined "Lycée Nanaïssa Santara: the president's mistress." Originally published in "Info-Martin" on 1 June and later reprinted in the other newspapers, it was about the humorous essay subject that Minta gave his final-year literature students - the story of a "female student and economic prostitute" who became pregnant by a fictitious president and fought for her child to be recognised.

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