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French Journalists Face Possible Death Sentence in Niger

Two French television journalists jailed in Niger have appeared before a judge for questioning. They face charges of undermining the security of the state and a possible death sentence after traveling without permission to report on Tuareg rebels in northern Niger. Naomi Schwarz has more from Dakar.

Thomas Dandois and Pierre Creisson, who work for the Franco-German television news channel Arte, were arrested in Niger's capital, Niamey, on December 17.

They had been given official permission to travel through southern and central Niger to report on bird flu. But they also traveled without permission to the north of the country, the site of an uprising against the government by a nomadic Tuareg rebel group.

Reporters Without Borders Africa head Leonard Vincent says the French journalists are asking the judge for clemency.

"The are saying that they recognize that they have breached the rules of the government and that they are ready to face sanctions, but that these sanctions should be in proportion with what they have really committed," he said. "And they have not committed a crime, they have just committed a minor offense."

The government has banned travel in the north for security reasons. It denies the unrest in that region is politically motivated, saying attacks there are the result of drug trafficking and banditry. The rebels say they are fighting for greater autonomy and a larger share of the uranium wealth that mostly comes from their homeland in Niger's north.

Vincent says Dandois and Creisson's arrest is the latest action by Niger's government to systematically block media coverage of the Tuareg uprising.

"It is clear that putting journalists in jail systematically when they are caught after they have been getting too curious about the Tuareg rebellion is an attempt to muzzle the press and to control the information, not to see what is really going on, on the field, on the ground," he added.

Two other journalists have been jailed in connection with reporting on the Tuaregs.

Local Radio France International correspondent, Moussa Kaka, has been held since September 20. The government says it has recorded phone conversations that prove Kaka was aiding the Tuaregs.

Kaka's lawyer says the recordings were obtained illegally and Kaka only spoke to rebels in his capacity as a journalist.

An appeals court decision on whether the tapes are admissible has been postponed until February 12.

Reporters Without Borders' Vincent says he believe the justice process has been conducted fairly, but he worries the delays are an attempt to keep Kaka imprisoned longer.

"For Moussa it is very slow, and this is what is sort of disappointing for us, because we do not understand how the appeal to the accusation chamber on the phone taps have taken such a long time," he explained.

Local journalist Khader Idy says the journalist community is showing solidarity with the detainees, and waiting to see how the trials will be conducted.

He says Niger has always respected media freedom, but this question of security has revealed a different side of the authorities. He says he does not know why the authorities are preventing journalists from providing impartial coverage of the Tuareg rebellion.

Government authorities have said restrictions on press freedom are warranted during conflicts.