Central African Republic: Press Freedom Under Threat in Central African Republic

Photo: La Presse
A press freedom protest in Tunisia.

Journalists in the Central African Republic go on strike in protest against repression from the country's new leaders who seized power in a March coup.

For more than a month, rebels in the Central African Republic (CAR) have been in control of the country after overthrowing the government of autocratic ruler François Bozize.

Under President Bozize, freedom of the media came at a price. Journalists were often arrested or disappeared without trace. The new president, Michel Djotodia, has promised more freedom to journalists.

Media 'plundered'

Central Africa's "Ndele Luka" radio station is renowned for its well-researched news, political discussions and lively comments. But one day recently, all that could be heard was a recurring announcement, no matter which station had been selected.

"The media in the Central African Republic are being plundered. The safety of journalists is threatened every day, and the freedom of speech and expression is not guaranteed by the government. We appeal to the international press to draw attention to our dramatic situation in this forgotten country."

The rebels plundered the studios of Ndele Luka radio station and looted computers

The Central African Federation of Journalists had called for a nationwide protest and a one day strike. Radio stations played only the protest announcement interspersed with European music instead of the usual Central African rhythms.

The few daily newspapers did not appear, while television, which has a relatively small number of viewers due to the constant power outages, broadcast only old documentaries.

Despite the protest, all reporters at the Ndeke Luka radio station attended the editorial meeting. At the entrance to the small building behind a high wall, two armed rebels stand guard.

"They stand there almost every day," says editor-in-chief Jean Claude Ali-Syhlas. This show of force is nothing new to him. The independent and critical radio station also had problems with the former leader, President Bozize.

Ndele Luka radio station is renowned for its well researched and critical news items

The concept of Ndeke Luka is that listeners can ask questions, and the editors take them to the authorities in search for answers. This did not endear the station to those in power, as under the old regime there had been many violations of human rights. "We were therefore always perceived as a hostile station to the regime," says Ali-Syhlas.

This image of the radio station had strengthened in the months of fighting between government and rebels, says Ali-Syhlas

In an interview with DW, he recounted how, when the uprising began, his station interviewed the rebels and asked them about their motives. As a result, the station was accused by the old regime of helping the rebels by providing them with a public platform to air their views.

'We will crush you'

Before the rebels captured the capital on March 24, the old regime had incited youth gangs to attack and plunder the transmitter but with little success. But the day after the Seleka rebels overthrew Francois Bozizé, they attacked the radio station and stole motorcycles, computers and other equipment.

"They came and said, 'watch out or we will crush you.' " Ali-Sylhas said.

Seleka rebels attacked the station after overruning Bangui

The rebels raided and looted the homes of some journalists. The journalists feel they are under greater threat than before from the Bozize regime.

"These insurgents do not speak our language," says Ali-Syhlas. "They came out of the bush, they do not understand the world we live in. For example, they took away screens, but not the computers because they thought they were television sets. And they stole the air conditioning remote controls, because they thought they were phones. They are uneducated. Their language is that of violence. Even if the president assures us there will be freedom of the press, he cannot protect us from such people."

Media more important than ever

Apparently even the rebel leaders, although they are well educated, do not fully understand the role and function of the media. This makes the work of independent radio stations very difficult.

Ndeke Luka is funded by international donors, such as France, Belgium and the European Union. In the poverty-stricken and corrupt Central African Republic, this is the basic requirement to be able to work independently and critically.

The media should play a central role right now, says the director of the Association of Journalists for Human Rights, who prefers not to see her name in Western media for security reasons. The association is one of the most important NGOs in the country.

The new president has promised more media freedoms

The media should build trust between the population and the new rulers and "show the new regime, that it cannot govern without the people," she says. The rebels have come to rule the country, the rebels are governing the country but the population is suffering, she adds.

In this general climate of fear, it is almost a miracle that the journalists have called for a day of protest - even if it is a very cautious one.

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