Journalist freed after two months in jail

The editor and proprietor of the weekly newspaper, 'Le Republicain', Mamane Abou, was freed from jail by Niger's Court of Appeal on Tuesday, after serving two months of a six-month sentence for publishing sensitive government documents.

Abou was jailed on 5 November for his alleged complicity in the theft and reception of stolen government documents after his newspaper published allegations that Prime Minister Hama Amadou Amadou and former Finance Minister Ali Badjo Gamatie had embezzled state funds.

But the Appeal Court on Tuesday ordered the journalist's provisional release, pending the outcome of his appeal.

Abou faced a second trial on 23 December, at which the judge found him guilty of defaming Amadou and Gamatie. On that occasion, he was given a four-month suspended jail sentence and was ordered to pay the politicians two million CFA (US$3,800) in damages.

On 17 July, 2003, Le Republicain published an investigative report which claimed the government had made irregular payments of about four million CFA (about $7,700) to suppliers. It also accused Amadou and Gamatie of embezzling public funds.

Abou's imprisonment provoked a public outcry in Niger. The main opposition parties organised a series of demonstrations to press for his unconditional release.

Abdoulaye Moussa Massalatchi, the president of the Union of Private Sector Journalists of Niger (UJPN), called Abou's release a "half victory," noting that the outcome of his appeal was still uncertain.

"We feel that Mamane Abou was just expressing his free opinion about the administration's irregular behaviour," Massalatchi said.

The international media watchdog, Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF) also welcomed Abou's release and urged the government to decriminalise the violation of laws governing the press.

"Condemning a journalist to six months for defamation appeared to us completely disproportionate," Paris-based RSF said in a statement.

Abou told RSF by telephone he was relieved to be out of jail. "I will resume my work as a journalist very quickly," he added.

The government of President Mamadou Tandja has in recent months taken action against several independent newspapers and radio stations, prompting cries of alarm from international media watchdogs and human rights defenders.