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Malian Authorities Fail to See Humor in Satirical Essay, Jail Journalists

Activists in Mali are protesting the arrest of several newspaper directors, a journalist and a high school teacher for printing a satirical essay about the sexual exploits of a fictional president. Journalists and media freedom activists say the arrests, which they say threaten Mali's democracy, are a surprise in a country that has a good track record in protecting civil liberties. Naomi Schwarz has more from VOA's West Africa bureau in Dakar.

Five journalists and a high school teacher are now in jail over what began as a literary exercise and a joke.

The teacher, Bassirou Kassim Minta, asked his students to write an essay about the escapades of a president of a fictional country.

When Seydina Oumar Diarra, a journalist with the independent daily Info-Matin, published his humorous essay, called "The Mistress of the President," he and Minta were arrested and charged with committing an "outrage to the president."

Other media organizations protested, saying the arrests were unfair.

An editor of the newspaper Les Echos, Moussa Bolly, says its director was arrested, because he chose to re-publish the article to show it contained nothing to justify an arrest.

Two other newspapers, which, like Info-Matin and Les Echos, are seen as tilting toward the opposition, also re-published the essay. The directors of all four newspapers, along with Diarra and Minta, are in jail.

Bolly says the press and civil society are mobilizing to fight this attack on civil liberties to show that Mali's young democracy will not accept setbacks.

Multi-party democracy came to Mali in the early 1990s, following the overthrow of the previous, authoritarian president, Moussa Traoré.

Leonard Vincent, head of the Africa desk for the international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, says Mali has been seen as a model for freedom of expression.

"For several years now Mali has been seen as an example in West Africa in terms of political freedom and especially press freedom," he noted. "The press is very free. There are a lot of opposition newspapers, a lot of independent newspapers, private radio, and no major problem has occurred for something like four years now. "

He says the arrests appear due to the action of a single magistrate.

"The magistrate has used a procedure where he decided alone to open a procedure against the journalists," Vincent added. "So we have no indication whatsoever that there was a political order."

Bolly says he does not believe the now-infamous article is the real reason for the arrests.

He says many observers believe the journalists were arrested as retaliation for opposition papers' coverage of the recent presidential elections. Some in the president's camp felt the coverage was unfair.

Vincent, of Reporters Without Borders, says whether or not the president was involved in the decision to arrest the journalists, it is imperative that he act.

"He has to intervene," he explained. "He has to say I am not offended. There is no point in pursuing the procedure. Obviously, he has to say that in Mali it is possible to criticize the president. He should be proud, as the president of a democracy, that people can criticize the president without going to jail."

The trial is scheduled for Tuesday. President Amadou Toumani Toure was recently re-elected by a wide margin in an election observers deemed free and fair.