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Niger Journalists Fearless But Poor - 2004-09-23

Niger, one of Africa's poorest countries, is one of the few which has liberalized airwaves to private media. Its press has become responsible, avoiding hate messages and unsubstantiated reporting that are prevalent on the continent. But despite these favorable developments, a lack of resources and ongoing problems with the government prevent media from flourishing.

Radio Anfani broadcasts music, religious programs and multilingual news from its own journalists and three international radio stations to its listeners in Maradi, Niger's southern Islamic stronghold.

Director Yahouza Sadissou says since the first private radio station opened in the capital Niamey in 1993, radio news has played a vital role in promoting democracy.

"The advantage of Niger is that we have many private radios," said Yahouza Sadissou. "In Niamey, you have over 10 private radios, here in Maradi we have three, so the leaders of political parties use these radios to do their electoral campaigns and a lot of things to sensitize the people."

Legislative and presidential elections are coming up this year, and private media are giving a voice to all candidates. There is even a private television station, even though its signal is weaker than that of the government-owned station.

Unlike in most other West African countries, private media can broadcast their own news. But the government hardly releases any information at all. Human rights activist and founder of the student-run Radio Alternative, Saidou Arji, says it's very difficult to report on anything government-related.

"In Niger, there is no law which accords access to information," said Saidou Arji. "The access to information depends on personal relations or other considerations. We don't have a bill which consecrates access to information."

At Radio Saraounia in Niamey, a D.J. mixes in music with a call-in show about health matters. Radio Saraounia has affiliates in four other cities and seems to be a dynamic organization.

But director Moussa Kaka says the government has failed to help finance private media since the re-establishment of democracy in 1999, despite budget provisions mandating this.

Since there are almost no commercials to speak of, Mr. Kaka explains, he finances his radio stations by partnering with international aid agencies and promoting their programs.

Mr. Kaka, who also reports for French international radio, recently spent five days in police custody after reporting that renewed Tuareg attacks in the north were the start of a rebellion. This contradicted government reports of attacks by what were described as bandits. After pressure from international watchdog groups, Mr. Kaka was released, but all his notebooks and address books were taken away.

Across town, journalist and businessman Maman Abou runs a successful printing press. He was jailed last year for illegally disclosing government documents which exposed a corruption scandal at the Finance Ministry. He was released after two months amid growing popular protests outside his jail cell.

Mr. Abou says running a newspaper or radio station is more about promoting democracy and dialogue than running a business. He founded Le Republicain newspaper after state media ignored the killing of three university students during a military crackdown in 1990.

His newspaper sells just 2,000 copies, but he says he can still generate attention. A recent headline blared out "President Mamadou Tandja Caught With His Hand in the Cookie Jar."

The allegations of corrupt activities prompted speculation that the president would hold his first press conference since his 1999 election. Instead, the finance ministry released a statement, saying the president had put his own money into state coffers rather than taking some out.