- Niger's independent weekly newspaper 'Le Témoin' this week was targeted by the government as it planned to publish a story and photographs of rebels of the Tuareg nomads, operating in the north of the country. The newspaper never hit Niamey streets.
On Monday, the latest issue of the weekly newspaper 'Le Témoin' was seized by police in the Nigerien capital, Niamey. According to the Ghana-based Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), the independent media was subjected to a major police operation due to its reporting of a Tuareg rebellion.
MFWA reports that four plainclothes police officers went to the Nouvelle Imprimerie du Niger, the country's largest private printing press, and asked to see the director. Some minutes later, several uniformed officers arrived at the premises in two pick-up trucks and stormed the workshop of the printing press, despite protests from the company's director.
They seized the newspaper's entire print run and materials necessary for the production of the issue, including offset plates. The managing editor of 'Le Témoin', who was present at the time, immediately left the premises after learning that police were asking for him. A major police search for him is under way. "He has presently gone into hiding," MFWA says.
In the seized issue, 'Le Témoin' was expected to publish a photograph of four soldiers and gendarmes taken hostage by the Tuareg rebels operating in northern Niger. Government officials on several occasions have warned the press from reporting about the rebellion by an unknown number of Tuaregs.
Clashes between the Nigerien government and semi-nomadic Tuareg ethnic group in the early 1990s originally abated with the brokering of a peace accord in 1995. The peace deal integrated the former Tuareg rebels into the army and provided senior government positions to the rebellion's leaders.
However, certain former rebel elements have been critical of the government's commitment to the agreement's terms since then. Trouble started as Rhissa Ag Boula, a former rebel leader, was sacked from government earlier this year.
Soon after the sacking of Mr Ag Boula, an unknown number of former Tuareg rebels deserted from the Nigerien army and went back north to the nomads' bases in the Sahara desert. Unknown groups, believed to be the rebels, since then on several occasions have ambushed army units and robbed traveller caravans.
President Mamadou Tandja's government has been very sensitive to media stories relating to the Tuareg issue. In a 2 October 2003 radio message, the President accused private stations in the country of opening up their talk show and panel discussion programmes to members of the Tuareg ethnic group who criticise the government and make comments that are "likely to disturb the social peace and public order."
MFWA today protested the seizure of 'Le Témoin', calling it "a blatant act of censorship" contrary to press freedom as guaranteed in the constitution of Niger. The media watchdog group called on Niamey authorities to "guarantee the personal safety and freedom" of the 'Le Témoin' editor.
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