- Lola Rasoamaharo, the publication director of the independent daily 'La Gazette de la Grande Île', this week was given three prison sentences handed down in separate libel cases. Mr Rasoamaharo remains free, pending appeal, but press freedom groups fear that the sentences may "pave the way for greater pressure on the independent press" of Madagascar.
In the first lawsuit, Mr Rasoamaharo was sentenced to two months in prison and fined 3 million ariary (approximately 1,200 euros) for libelling and insulting National Assembly Deputy Speaker Mamy Rakotoarivelo, who also owns two newspapers and a television station. Mr Rakotoarivelo's request that Mr Rasoamaharo be banned from residing in Madagascar was rejected by the Antananarivo court.
The action was brought over a 19 January editorial headlined "A true moron", which was accompanied by Mr Rakotoarivelo's photo. The editorial referred to an incident during a public event in which the deputy speaker insulted La Gazette de la Grande Île's managing editor, James Rasoamaharo, calling him a moron.
In the second case, Lola Rasoamaharo was sentenced to two months in prison and his editor, Rolly Mercia, given a one-month suspended prison sentence and a symbolic fine of one ariary over a May 2004 report recalling that criminal charges had in past been filed and then dropped against Pakistani businessman Mamod Taky Mamode Abasseky. The businessman said the report had "seriously harmed his honour, respect and credibility."
In the third case, Mr Rasoamaharo was sentenced to one month in prison and damages of 1 million ariary (approximately 400 euros) for libelling an individual by the name of Gabhy Ramaherijaona.
Frank Raharison, one of the newspaper's executives, commented that "this is the first time that a newspaper publication director has received a prison sentence since Madagascar became independent. We are very surprised and we see this as a message of intimidation towards the Malagasy press for being too critical. It is a way of trying to bring journalists into line."
Prison sentences cannot be served concurrently in Madagascar. The newspaper's lawyer has appealed against all three convictions. National and international free press groups put their trust in these appeals to avoid a harsher climate for Madagascar's independent media.
Mush is at stake. Other independent Malagasy newspapers such as 'Le Quotidien', 'Ngah', and 'Madagascar Tribune' have cases pending before the courts. In response to these lawsuits and convictions, the country's journalists are planning a day of action and solidarity.
The Paris-based Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) today pledged its support to the planned actions Malagasy journalists. RSF today protested the three prison sentences handed down to Mr Rasoamaharo. "We are extremely worried by these court decisions, which pave the way for greater pressure on the independent press," the French group said.
RSF warned of grave consequences. "If Madagascar starts imprisoning journalists, it will be clearly choosing to go against the right to freedom of opinion and expression defended by the UN, which advocates the abolishment of prison sentences for press offences," the group said in a statement.
Finally, RSF noted that the sentences come a year after the start of a workshop on the role of the media in reinforcing the democratic process, and at a time when Madagascar's 1990 Communication Code - which made defamation and insult punishable by up to six months in prison - is being amended.
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