- The parliament of the Central African Republic has passed a law, decriminalising press offences, meaning that journalists and editors will not be sent to prison for their reporting. The act however still has to be firmed by the President, General François Bozizé.
The decriminalisation of press offences was a product of a major campaign by journalists and press associations in the Central African Republic. The campaign was launched after several controversial arrests of editors and journalists since General Bozizé came to power in a coup.
The previous 1998 press law was particularly controversial. It included provisions for prison terms with no parole for "defamation" and the "publication of false news". In 2002, National Assembly parliamentarians had voted to reject a reform of the law and maintained the repressive 1998 legislation on the books.
The general outcry surrounding the Maka Gbossokotto affair in the summer of 2004 undoubtedly helped to convince President Bozizé of the urgent need to reform the Press Code. Mr Gbossokotto was arrested on 8 July.
The publication director of the privately-owned daily "Le Citoyen" and RSF correspondent spent one month in prison after a defamation complaint was filed against him by an associate of the President.
After spending one month in detention in deplorable conditions, Mr Gbossokotto finally received a one-year suspended prison sentence and a fine of franc CFA 500,000 (approximately euro 760) for "public insults".
Mr Gbossokotto's arrest and detention were widely condemned, notably by the Central African Republic's Association of Private and Independent Newspaper Publishers (Groupement centrafricain des éditeurs de la presse privée et indépendante, GEPPIC). In a protest action, the group suspended publication of all of its media titles from 12 to 19 July.
Following his 8 August release, Mr Gbossokotto became one of the most vocal organisers of the GEPPIC and the Central African Journalists' Union (Union des Journalistes de Centrafrique, UJCA).
He demanded that the government reform the Press Code, just as President Bozizé had promised when he came to power. GEPPIC also launched a "day without newspapers", vowing to no longer publish newspapers on Fridays until the government decriminalised press offences.
The Central African parliament's decision to liberalise its press code was today also welcomed by international media freedom groups. The Paris-based media watchdogs Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) today congratulated its Central African partners for the successful campaign to modernise national press laws.
Central African journalists should "be proud to have led a peaceful and successful campaign [to decriminalise press offences], which is so important for the building of a genuine democracy," the RSF statement said. Citizens, journalists, politicians and authorities in the Central African Republic "will soon reap the benefits of the law's adoption, in terms of security, freedom and respect," the group added.
- We urge President François Bozizé not to obstruct this victory for democracy and to circulate the text [of the law] without delay," the RSF statement further noted.
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