Niger's Higher Council for Communications (French name-Conseil supérieur de la Communication, CSC) has withdrawn the broadcasting licenses of 15 private radio stations, saying their owners had failed to comply with Niger's laws.
Niger's Union of Private Journalists and Reporters sans frontières (RSF) denounced the decision and urged the stations to continue broadcasting.
The CSC said in a statement on Sunday that it had stopped the stations because their licenses were granted unilaterally by its President Mariama Keita. It said Keita had been suspended for two months to pave way for investigations into her activities.
"The interested parties are directed to immediately suspend their transmissions and to contact the CSC to ensure their conformity with the regulations in force," the Council said. The suspensions were effective 25 September.
RSF said it was "outraged over the decision, which is characteristic of a regime that seeks to suppress basic freedoms."
"Just what is happening at present in Niger? A journalist has been jailed for the past two weeks and now radio stations are suspended!," RSF Secretary-General Robert Ménard said in a letter to the government.
"The authorities must reconsider these actions and remember their commitment to press freedom," he added.
RSF called on Niger to release Ibrahim Souley, the editor of "L'Enquêteur" newspaper who has been in detention at Niamey central prison since 13 September. He was arrested for reporting alleged misappropriation of funds in the handling of government contracts.
CSC said its 13-members suspended Keita for wrongfully authorising the stations to operate and for financial impropriety. The first woman journalist in Niger, Keita, however remains a CSC member.
"The authorisations to operate had been given by Keita whereas such a decision should have been taken by CSC plenary...Faced with this procedural anomaly, the members unanimously sanctioned Keita for deciding unilaterally to give authorisations to radio stations," CSC said.
CSC's members include a representative each of Niger's President Mamadou Tandja, the head of the national assembly and the Ministers of Communications, Justice and Interior. It also has three representatives each of civil society and professional public media associations and two representatives of the private sector.
It has overall authority over the media and is expected to ensure respect for media ethics, guarantee press freedom and access to the media by all political parties and other interested parties.
On Tuesday, Niger's media associations condemned the suspension of the stations as "arbitrary" and intended to "curb the right to information". They called on the stations that had been "unjustly sanctioned" not to comply with the CSC directive.
There are at least 50 private radio stations in Niger.
RSF said the suspended stations included Horizon FM, Sahara FM, Saraounia FM and Radio Madiana. "The targeted stations have decided to ignore the CSC's decision and continue their broadcasts as usual," it added.
Niger, an impoverished former French colony of 11 million people which has been plagued by coups before it adopted multi-party democracy in 1992.
Tandja, a former army colonel who was elected president in 1999, put down a coup attempt last year by soldiers complaining about poor living conditions. Presidential and parliamentary elections are due at the end of 2004, but Tandja has not yet indicated whether he will seek a second term.