"No to Landmines!"
Yesterday (Tuesday, January 8, 2007) a Nigerien journalist was killed when a landmine exploded under his car in Niamey, and the Niger government immediately blamed the Tuareg-led rebel group, Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ). Moreover, Niger's Defense Minister, Ben Omar, has issued an appeal to the country's citizens to set up "vigilance brigades" to fight against "these new types of assassins" (Reuters, Jan. 9, 2008 15:29 GMT). Is there any reason to believe that the rebellion in the North would target the director of a private radio station 1,000 miles away in Niamey?
Background on Landmines in Niger:
The use of landmines emerged in July 2007, when MNJ reported that they had observed the Niger army laying Chinese landmines in the conflict zone in the north (MNJ July 16, 2007). MNJ has maintained a steady record of the use of Chinese weapons and landmines by the Niger army in the Air Mountains, on their blog (MNJ July 7, July 16, July 31, Aug. 20, Sept. 27, Dec. 12, Dec. 16, Dec. 20, Jan. 2, Jan. 9). At first, the mines appeared only in the conflict zone. Then, the Niger government made an announcement in November 2007 that the rebels would begin "acts of urban terror" by laying mines in the cities (Reuters, Jan. 9, 2008). On Nov. 21, police foiled an attempt to detonate an anti-tank mine in a fuel depot in Dosso; on Dec. 10, two landmines exploded on the same day, in Tahoua and Maradi (Reuters, Dec. 11, 2007); all three cities are far to the south of the conflict zone in the north of the Air Mountains.
There was some contradiction in the reportage on a landmine discovered recently in Tanout. A Niamey-based news source L'Union recently reported that two Tuareg men connected with MNJ were apprehended in Tanout, for allegedly laying landmines in front of the Prefet's home in Tahoua on Dec. 18. However, the independent newspaper Le Republicain asks why the Nigerien authorities are not being more diligent about pursuing the "real" perpetrators, and questions whether or not the men arrested at Tanout were actually the guilty ones. Given the government's campaign to demonize the Tuaregs on the national radio and television (see MNJ blog -Highlights in English) it is not clear whether or not the arrested men were framed, in order to support the government's policies.
[UPDATE: It was the Prefet of Tanout who allegedly planted the landmine in Tanout, according to MNJ: On Jan. 21, MNJ conducted a surprise attack on Tanout and captured the Prefet, Garba Kona. MNJ alleges that the Prefet, who is currently their prisoner, "acknowledges, without any coercion or threat whatsoever on our part, of organizing the conspiracy to lay the landmine at Tanout, an act of which peaceful citizens were accused." (MNJ, Jan. 19, 2008)]
Two news agencies have implied that the journalist had no known enemies in the currently divided government: Afrol reported, "during his lifetime, he was not known for critical reporting," (Afrol Jan. 9, 2008). A BBC correspondent in Niamey alleged that the victim "was not known to be critical of either side." However, possible evidence to the contrary is described below (History of RM Radio Station). The Niger government and many of the news sources have pointed either directly or indirectly to the Tuareg-led rebel group MNJ (Niger Movement for Justice), whose base of operations is over 1,000 miles away, in the Air Mountains, north of Agadez, where the conflict is defined and centered. How likely is it that Tuaregs would plant landmines in Niamey? What else is going on in Niger that might help explain what happened? What facts can be gleaned from the news reports, as well as past reports and news items over the past few years, that would help us understand what this is all about?
1. Virtual news blackout in Niger: Beginning end of last summer 2007, not long after the U.S. brought a media expert to Niamey in July to provide a training conference to local journalists and reporters to encourage freedom of the press and responsible journalism in a democratic society, President Tandja's regime began restricting the media through force, arresting and incarcerating reporters who had interviewed or reported "sympathetically" on the Tuareg-led rebel group, Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ).
(a) RFI, BBC and VOA broadcasts can be shut down at any time in Niger: In July, the government suspended local FM radio broadcasts of Radio France Internationale (RFI) for one month, because they seemed to be broadcasting news that was sympathetic to the MNJ, and saying things that made Tandja's regime look bad. RFI is the major world radio broadcaster for France, as is BBC for Britain, and Voice of America for the U.S. In order to remain on the air at this point, RFI, BBC and VOA must continually remind themselves of Tandja's recent history of shutting down international radio broadcasts in Niger. It's worth keeping that in mind, in assessing the content, perspectives and tone of their current coverage of news events in Niger. Their broadcasts could easily be shut down by Tandja if they say anything that seems too sympathetic toward MNJ.
(b) Prominent Nigerien reporters jailed:
(i) The manager of Radio Saraouniya, Moussa Kaka, was arrested Sept. 20, and has remained in jail since September 20th for interviewing a member of the MNJ over the telephone, even though a Nigerien judge said the conversations were taped illegally and cannot be used as evidence. (RSF, October 15, 2007)
(ii) Aïr Info news editor Ibrahim Manzo was arrested October 9 and accused of being “the correspondent for Radio France Internationale (RFI) in Agadez." He was later charged with "criminal association," because of some articles he wrote that mentioned the MNJ, and he remains in prison with murderers and thieves. (RSF, October 31, 2007)
(iii) Daouda Yacouba, the In Gall correspondent for Aïr Info, was arrested on Oct. 25 and detained for six days because he allegedly interviewed a member of the MNJ. (RSF, November 2, 2007)
(c) Prominent French reporters jailed:
(i) Francois Bergeron, an independent French documentary film-maker, was arrested Oct. 7, and deported from Niger after being held in jail for a month after allegedly taking film footage involving members of MNJ. He had been filming Tuareg nomads in the Agadez region when he was arrested. (Reuters, October 6, 2007; The Times, South Africa, Oct. 7, 2007)
(ii) Two French TV journalists, reporter Thomas Dandois and cameraman Pierre Creisson, were arrested Dec. 17 for interviewing members of the MNJ; they are accused of endangering state security. They have remained in jail in Niger, and threatened with the death penalty. (IHT, December 20, 2007)
(d) Self-Censorship is in effect: In order to survive, newspapers and radio stations have had to submit to self-censorship. This creates a concern for the content, perspectives and tone of all news coverage in Niger. The news is not complete or reliable, and what goes into print or is aired on the radio must appear to be favorable to the government. There are no checks and balances in Niger.
2. Facts of the victim's death:
(a) Abdou Mahaman Jeannot was killed Tuesday, January 8, 2008, while driving home in his Toyota with a female friend, who was injured. (AFP Jan. 8, 2008)
(b) He was killed by a landmine, around 10:30 PM. (AFP Jan. 8, 2008)
(c) The landmine was hidden under a dirt service road, a detour off the main road that had very little traffic. (AFP Jan. 8, 2008, VOA Jan. 9, 2008)
(d) A second landmine was later discovered 200 meters away, and was defused (Reuters, Jan. 9, 2008 15:29 GMT; BBC, Jan. 9, 2008)
3. Context of the landmine explosion:
(a) The road was in the Yantala suburb, where many Army officers live (BBC, Jan. 9, 2008)
(b) The Road to Tondibia is also in Yantala suburb.
(c) Tondibia is the main army base, where MNJ says 9 landmines disappeared recently. (MNJ December 20, 2007)
(d) Niamey is 1,000 miles from the conflict zone in the North.
(e) A local journalist in Niamey, Khader Idy, told VOA "whoever planted the landmine may have had a strategic reason. He says repairs to the main road required drivers to use that side road as a detour." (VOA Jan. 9, 2008)
4. Facts about Abdou Mahaman and RM Radio:
(a) Abdou Mahaman was the CEO/Managing Director of "RM" (R et M, Radio et Musique) Radio station, in Niamey. (AFP Jan. 8, 2008)
(b) He was also the Vice-President of the Niger Press Center.
(c) He was also one of the leaders of the association of private radio promoters in Niger (APRPN).
(d) RM was the first independent radio station in Niger, founded in 1992 (APA, Jan. 9, 2008)
(e) RM broadcasts international news from VOA, BBC and Radio Deutsch Welle.
(f) Contrary to what Afrol and BBC reported, it appears that RM has a history of some negative interaction with the government.
5. History of RM Radio Station:
(a) In late Oct. 1998, Niger temporarily shut down all international broadcasts on private Niger radio stations, including R et M. (IRIN, Nov. 3, 1998)
(b) In Nov. 1998, it was reported that officials in Niger temporarily banned all relays of international broadcasters in private Niger stations -- the two Niger private FM broadcasters "singled out for restriction" were Anfani and R et M. Both broadcast news from Voice of America, Radio Deutsche Welle and the BBC. Daouda Diallo, president of Niger’s media authority, Le Conseil superieur de la communication (CSC), said the ban would remain effective until international broadcasters sign contracts with the government - agreements which would help establish who would be held legally responsible in the event of legal actions. (Friends of Niger Newsletter, Nov. 1998)
(c) At the end of 1998, two radio stations, including R et M, received warnings not to relay any news that would "raise political tensions" in the country, an order equivalent to censoring news about political parties opposing the regime. (Amnesty International, January 1999 Report
(d) In Feb. 2001, an unnamed journalist from R et M was accused of defamation of the SNAD, the customs officials' union (RSF 2002 Report)
(e) Most recently - one week before the victim's death: The Conseil Supérieur de la Communication required certain journalists to present themselves to CSC and apply for "press cards," something the Niger government has done in the past when it is cracking down on certain reporters; a journalist from R et M was on the list. (Tam Tam Info, Dec. 31, 2007)
(a) Government of Niger: No official response (APA Jan. 9, 2007). No expression of sympathy for the victim's family. Accusations of the Tuareg-led rebels. Announcement to citizens to form "vigilance brigades" and to fight against "these new types of assassins" (Reuters, Jan. 9, 2008 15:29 GMT).
(b) Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ): Public rejection of blame for the incident, on their Internet website: "The Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) strongly denounces the assassination of the Director of Radio RM Niamey." Expression of sympathy for the victim. VOA contacted Aoutchiki Mohammed Kriska, MNJ spokesman, who denies that MNJ had any part in the explosion. He says the rebels learned of the explosion with consternation and have never sought to target civilians in Niamey or elsewhere. He accuses government forces of staging attacks against civilians and blaming his group. He says some suggest it is to turn public opinion against the rebels and justify a security crackdown." (VOA Jan. 9, 2008).
(a) MNJ says that the Niger government has shifted into high gear, from censoring and arresting reporters, and and threatening them with the death penalty, to actually assassinating reporters.
(b) MNJ points out, Why didn't this mine kill someone from the Government, instead of a director of a radio station? It's because the Government is the one that planted the mine.
(c) On the Agadez-Niger Forum, where Tuaregs, non-Tuaregs, and Europeans discuss the day to day events, one poster said: "There is a view that the mine yesterday may have links with mines stolen or lost from Tondibia [the main Niger military base, in Niamey]. If it is, I think that the perpetrators should be easy to find and may have linkages with the latest events that took place in Niamey." Another poster said, "In some quarters of the politico-military there are those who seem to want anarchy during these times when the political landscape is being reconstituted at the end of Tandja's second term," and noted that there have been serious political tensions since the vote of no-confidence in the government last summer. Another poster noted that there are no official government investigations taking place, or if there are, they don't have results. At least two posters feel it could have been *neither* MNJ nor the Army who laid the mine that killed Abdou Mahaman. (Agadez-Niger Forum, Jan. 9, 2008)
(d) (UPDATE) The IFJ [International Federation of Journalists] has called for a full investigation of Abdou Mahaman's death; they say they fear that "Niger’s government is increasing its pressure on journalists in an attempt to silence reports on the rebellion." (IJF, Jan. 9, 2008)
(e) There may be some predisposing circumstances surrounding R et M Radio Station, based on what little can be gleaned from its history of interactions with the Niger government -- it has been "singled out" from time to time, for various warnings, restrictions, and bans. The Tam Tam Info article of Dec. 31, 2007 may hold a clue. But Niger has a record of not investigating assassinations -- most notably, that of President Mainassara Baré. The present government of Niger absolved his assassins.
Landmine Kills Media Chief. Jan. 9, 2008
Agadez Forums, Niger Forum Index, Politics and Economy, "A mine killed a director of a private radio in Niamey!", Jan. 9, 2008
Des attaques contre des journalistes menacent la liberté d’expression. Amnesty International January 1999 AI Index: AFR 43/01/99/F
APA - African Press Agency (Dakar, Senegal)
Nigerien journalist killed in a mine explosion in Niamey. Jan. 9, 2008. http://www.africatime.com/niger/index.asp
Niger Reporter Killed by Landmine. Jan. 9, 2009
IJF (International Federation of Journalists)
IJF Calls for Investigation into Death of Radio Operator in Niger. Jan. 9, 2008
Organisation de la Presse Africaine (Communiqués de presse), Switzerland
MNJ Mouvement Nigerien pour la Justice, Niger Justice Movement
Reuters - Abdoulaye Massalatchi
Landmines kill second civilian in Niger town. Dec. 11, 2007. http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSL11579045
Reuters - Abdoulaye Massalatchi
Niger blames desert rebels for mine death in capital. Jan. 9, 2008 15:29 GMT.
U.S. Embassy, Niamey, Niger
U.S Expert Explains Role of the Media in a Democratic Society. 2007 Press Release.
retrieved on the Internet on January 3, 2007
VOA - Voice of America - Naomi Schwartz
Nigeriens Search for Landmines in Capital After Explosion Kills One. Jan. 9, 2008