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Niger Endures Week of Media Crackdown, Opposition Arrests, and Protests

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Recent moves by Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja to extend his rule have resulted in an order by the CSC, the country’s High Communications Council (Conseil Superieur de la Communication), to ban a top radio and television station from the airwaves.  Dounia Group, which runs Dounia Radio and TV, was targeted for what Niger’s media regulatory agency called “incitement of the security forces to revolt.” 
   
The charge follows President Tandja’s dissolution of the Constitutional Court on Monday, shortly after the bench reiterated that the president’s plans for a referendum on changing the constitution are illegal.  Tom Rhodes, the Africa program manager of New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), says that the regulatory body has overstepped press freedom boundaries before.
   
“This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the High Communications Council making these decisions against media outlets.  So we’ve just got to keep on pushing to make sure that they change their ways and actually become an independent body as they should be,” he said.
   
Rhodes says that last August, Dounia Group went to court and successfully overturned another attempt to knock it off the air.  This week, CPJ actually spoke with the head of Niger’s CSC. The council leader claimed that Dounia’s presentation of coverage of the country’s political crisis exceeded boundaries outlined by the council in a June 8 warning.
   
That directive restricted privately owned broadcasters from carrying live discussions of President Tandja’s attempts to change the constitution in order to secure a third term and extend his presidential rule. 
   
On Monday, President Tandja declared a state of emergency and disbanded the Constitutional Court after the body refused for the third time to prolong his rule.  The opposition Front for the Defense of Democracy (FDD), headed by opposition leader Mohamadou Issoufou, issued a statement calling for Mr. Tandja to resign and for the military to disregard the president’s orders to dissolve the court. 
   
Mr. Issoufou was detained for two hours on Tuesday, hours after charging that recent moves by the president tantamount to carrying out a coup d’etat.  On Wednesday, an opposition-organized nationwide strike failed to mobilize heavy support, despite public disfavor with President Tanjda’s unilateral moves to stay in power. CPJ’s Tom Rhodes says it’s likely the protests will continue, particularly during the period leading up to the president’s August 4 referendum on a third term.
   
“I do get the impression that this is not the last strike we are going to see.  We can only hope that more pressure will be placed on the president and the upper echelons to ensure that democracy is allowed to prevail in Niger,” he said.
   
Niger’s security forces say they will not take sides during the current political power struggle.  Rhodes notes that only five of the CSC’s 11-member body backed the council president’s banning order Monday against the Dounia Group.
   
“It’s kind of impressive in the sense that the media is trying to keep the story alive and that there are even people within the administration – for example, the Constitutional Court, and even within the CSC, the High Communication Council – who object to these kinds of measures.  We are under the impression that people are getting to know what’s going on despite efforts to censor the press,” he said.
   
On Wednesday, the White House issued a statement of concern “about the recent actions of Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja to rule by ordinance and decree and to dissolve the National Assembly and the Constitutional Court as part of a bid to retain power beyond his constitutionally-limited mandate.”
   
The statement went on to voice disappointment that Mr. Tandja’s moves are undermining Niger’s efforts over the past 10 years to promote good governance and the rule of law.  The African Union has just sent a delegation to Niger to help the political players solve their differences.

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