A defamation trial brought by Libyan President Muammar Gadhafi against three newspapers in Niger opened on Friday. Phuong Tran has more from VOA's West Africa bureau in Dakar.
The court proceeded with the trial against one of the papers, L'Evenement, and delayed hearings for the other two until October 12.
Libya's President Gadhafi is suing the newspapers for publishing reports saying he funded the current Tuareg uprising in Niger's northeast uranium-rich desert, home to many of the fighters.
The rebels deny receiving any help from outsiders. Rebels took up arms eight months ago, demanding more economic development and a bigger share of uranium profits.
Mr. Gadhafi is seeking $200,000, or about 100 times more than the normal fine, from each of the newspapers. Tom Rhodes with the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says such a fine can shut down the papers and discourage reporting on the rebellion.
According to Niger's 1999 press law, the fine for defamation is up to $2,000 and imprisonment.
"A libel suit in Niger is incredibly damaging for the journalists," he noted. "[Mr.] Gadhafi's lawyer is actually asking for more than the $2,000 for the libel suit, which could effectively close down the papers forever. Press freedom should not be first casualty of war."
The Niger government recently declared a state of alert in the north, home of the rebellion, and has effectively prevented all broadcasts and photography of the fighting. Communications authorities say the restrictions are needed to prevent false reports that can spread violence.
The government has refused to discuss the rebels' demands, dismissing the fighters as violent bandits, petty criminals and drug traffickers.
Rhodes says it will be hard for the three papers to have a fair trial, because the Niger government has reached out to Libya for help to quell the rebellion. He says the Niger government does not want to offend an ally.
"They are actually relying very much on [Mr.] Gadhafi's support," he oted. "The government is very much in favor of the trial and [Mr.] Gadhafi is also carrying out the trial, of course. They [the journalists] have got two strikes against them."
Libya recently intervened to help release more than a dozen Nigerien government soldiers captured by the Tuareg fighters, who are still holding dozens more.
Niger government spokesman Mohamed Ben Omar dismisses concerns the trial is political. He says the justice system is independent of any ties between the two governments.
Omar says Niger respects the separation of power between the presidency and justice system. He says Niger's judges are free to rule as they wish based on the evidence.