The recent conviction of two investigative journalists in Niger for reporting the findings of an international NGO marks an alarming turn in the authorities’ increasingly brazen targeting of media critics, Amnesty International said today.
On 3 January, a court in the capital Niamey sentenced two prominent journalists, Samira Sabou and Moussa Aksar, to respective one-month and two-month suspended jail terms, for republishing the findings of a May 2021 report by the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GITOC). The report alleged that a huge drug seizure made by the Niger authorities had been reacquired by the drug traffickers, using illicit means.
Both were convicted based on the 2019 Cyber Criminality Law which has been used by the authorities to clamp down on dissenting voices in the media and civil society – with terms like ‘defamation by means of electronic communication’, and ‘disseminating data for the purpose of disturbing public order’. They were also fined between 100-200 US dollars.
Samira Sabou and Moussa Aksar have long been targeted by Niger’s authorities simply for doing their essential journalistic work. Their convictions violate their right to freedom of expression and threaten media freedom in the country. Defamation should never be criminalized by law.Ousmane Diallo, Amnesty International West Africa Researcher.
Samira Sabou, who is also president of the Association of Bloggers for Active Citizenship (ABCA in French), shared the conclusions of the GITOC report, along with the link, on her Facebook page in May 2021. Moussa Aksar, who is also editor of the daily L’Évènement, and president of the Norbert Zongo Center for investigative journalism in West Africa (CENOZO), had also published the findings in a news article he had written in the same month.
Their lawyer Ahmed Mamane told Amnesty International: “The conviction constitutes a danger for press freedom in Niger. The 2019 Cybercriminality Law has regularly been used by the judiciary to prosecute and intimidate journalists who report on critical national issues. It allows the authorities to circumvent the law decriminalizing press offences and to prosecute journalists for defamation, or disseminating data that could disturb public order, when they report on contentious issues”.
The Niger Office for Repression of Illicit Trafficking of Narcotic Drugs (OCRTIS) had refuted the findings of the GITOC report on 28 May 2021 – denials that were also published by the two journalists, according to their lawyer.
In May 2021, Samira Sabou was arrested by police officers at home, and driven to OCRTIS where she was interrogated without the presence of her lawyer and without official notification of the charges against her.
Over the course of 2021, Samira Sabou and Moussa Aksar were summoned by the OCRTIS several times and interrogated about the reasons behind their publishing of the GITOC report. Aksar and Sabou then appeared on 9 September 2021 before a Niamey High Court. During their trial in December, the Public Prosecutor pleaded for a conviction on 27 December, despite the lack of a formal complaint for defamation against the two journalists.
“The convictions of Samira Sabou and Moussa Aksar constitute an alarming setback for press freedom in Niger. It’s abundantly clear that the opportunity to freely report on critical issues, is now at the mercy of national authorities,” said Ousmane Diallo.
“It is the responsibility of the authorities to ensure the media can do their work freely, and to protect journalists and bloggers against attacks, threats, or judicial harassment.”
In May 2021, Moussa Aksar was convicted of defamation for reporting on the misappropriation of public funds from the Ministry of Defence between 2017 and 2019. He was fined 362 US dollars and ordered to pay 1,810 US dollars.
Between June and July 2020, Samira Sabou was detained for 48 days, while being pregnant, following a defamation complaint filed by the son of the former president against her, after she posted on Facebook about the same scandal of Defence funds misappropriation. She was freed after all charges against her were dismissed by the Niamey High Court on 28 July 2020.