The conviction and sentencing to suspended jail terms of investigative journalists Samira Sabou and Moussa Aksar for indirect defamation sets a dangerous precedent for Niger’s press freedom and fight against organized crime, said the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) in its first reaction to the judgment delivered on 3 January 2022.

Samira Sabou was found guilty of defamation and Moussa Aksar guilty of defamation and undermining public order. The two were sentenced to a one month suspended jail term and fine of CFA50,000, and a two-month suspended jail term, respectively.

Ms Sabou, investigative journalist and blogger, and Mr Aksar, director of the media site “L’Événement Niger”, had been charged in court on 09 September under Niger’s draconian cyber criminality law which provides for imprisonment of up to three years in respect to direct or indirect defamation. The two were prosecuted following a complaint by OCRTIS, due to their circulation on social media of an article published by the GI-TOC on 11 May 2021.

An agreement was then reached on 15 December between the OCRTIS, the Public Prosecutor of the Republic of Niger, and the GI-TOC, in which the complaint was withdrawn. However, the public prosecutor’s office did not honour its part of the agreement and instead of dropping charges, asked for a conviction at a hearing on 27 December.

Although the punishment falls short of the maximum allowed for by the law, and is below the six-month suspended jail term demanded by the prosecution, the convictions nonetheless set a dangerous precedent for journalists and regular citizens pursing uncomfortable questions of public interest in Niger.

The article published by the GI-TOC, ‘Strange Days for Hashish Trafficking in Niger’, reported on the trafficking of cannabis resin through West Africa to North Africa, and the seizure by Nigerien authorities of a large shipment on 02 March. The GI-TOC reported information from multiple sources concerning the subsequent reacquisition of part of the shipment by traffickers, who later moved the drugs to Libya and Egypt. After the article was published, OCRTIS requested a right of reply, which was posted directly and incorporated into the article by the GI-TOC.

The GI-TOC continues to stand by the full contents of its report, which is based on triangulated source information. More importantly, the GI-TOC’s article was never meant as an attack on the Nigerien state, OCRTIS or the Office of the President, a claim which has been used by the prosecution to justify the use of the cybercriminal law. On the contrary, the article offers important visibility on evolving drug trafficking challenges within the Sahel, essential for the advancement of efforts to address trafficking and the harm posed by it to nations and citizens within the sub-region.

The seizure of 200 kilos of cocaine on 3 January, allegedly found in the vehicle of the mayor of Fachi, as part of an operation led by OCRTIS near Agadez, is a win for Nigerien law enforcement. However, it also vividly illustrates the corruptive challenge of transnational organized crime and underlines the need for independent analysis and reporting on evolving drug trafficking challenges within the Sahel. These elements are essential for advancing efforts to counter the harm posed by drug trafficking to Niger and Nigeriens and underscore the need for a civil society setting where debate is free.

In fact, Nigerien citizens should be able to debate matters of public interest and raise questions in respect to their institutions without fear of persecution. The GI-TOC stands in support of Ms Sabou and Mr Aksar and will back them in their appeal against the sentence and any lobbying for the cyber criminality law of 2019 to be repealed or amended.