The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) is shocked at the conviction of investigative journalists Moussa Aksar and Samira Sabou by the authorities in Niger and demands that the suspended sentences be quashed.
Aksar, editor in chief of media outlet “levenementniger.com” and also president of the Norbert Zongo Unit for Investigative Journalism in West Africa (CENOZO), was on January 3, 2022, handed two months suspended sentence over a publication about drug trafficking and corruption. Sabou, a blogger and Manager of the news website, Mides-Niger.com, also received a one-month suspended sentence and a fine of 50,000 CFA over the same publication.
Aksar was charged with defamation and undermining public order while Sabou was found guilty of defamation. The two had only relayed the findings of the Global Initiative’s experts on drug trafficking in Niger.
On 11 May 2021, an investigation by the Geneva-based Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC) identified Niger as a ‘nerve centre’ for hashish trafficking in the region and denounced the close links of traffickers with some of the country’s political and military elite. According to the report and multiple sources, 17 tonnes of cannabis resin were seized by the Nigerien authorities in March 2021, only for the contraband to find its way back into the hands of the traffickers.
The two journalists got into trouble only for republishing this international report online. On June 9, 2021, the country’s narcotics control agency, Office Central de Répression du Trafic Illicite des Stupéfiants (OCRTIS), filed a complaint against Global Initiative at the Office of the Public Prosecutor at the High Court of Niamey in connection with its publications on the seizure of 17 tonnes of cannabis in Niamey. The authorities then brought defamation charges against the local journalists on September 9, 2021, under Niger’s cybercrime law which provides for imprisonment of up to three years for defamation.
Although the OCRTIS, the Public Prosecutor of the Republic of Niger, and the GI-TOC came to an agreement on 15 December 2021 to withdraw the complaint against the GI-TOC, which the complainants duly announced on December 27, 2021, the public prosecutor’s office failed to drop the charges and proceeded with the prosecution of the journalists.
The convictions were obtained on the basis of Law No. 2019-33 of 3 July 2019 on the repression of cybercrime in Niger which criminalises “defamation by electronic communication” and “dissemination of data likely to undermine public order.”
The MFWA finds the decision regressive, given that Niger’s Law 2010-035 of June 4, 2010, on press freedom bars criminal prosecution of journalists for press offences. We are deeply concerned by the decision to prosecute the journalists despite the withdrawal of all charges and complaints against them by the anti-drug trafficking agency.
It should also be noted that this is the second time that Moussa Aksar has been prosecuted in court in less than a year and received a total of ten court summons in the past two years. He was fined the equivalent of 1,830 euros in June 2021 for participating in an international journalistic investigation that exposed alleged embezzlement of public money in connection with arms purchases. However, the journalist has appealed the conviction.
While we are satisfied that the journalists have been spared spending time in jail, we roundly and unequivocally condemn these sentences, which discredit Niger’s political and judicial authorities, and has the potential to silence journalists and critical voices who dare to expose cases of corruption in the country. We call on Niger’s political and judicial authorities to unconditionally drop all charges without fail to take steps to safeguard press freedom of press which is a fundamental, democratic right.