Central African Republic
|Official Country Name:||Central African Republic|
|Region (Map name):||Africa|
|Language(s):||French, Sangho, Arabic, Hunsa, Swahili|
Background & General Characteristics
The Central African Republic ( Centr'Afrique , Centrafrique , or CAR) is located in the heart of Africa, south of Chad and the Sudan and north of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its capital is Bangui. The CAR's 3.8 million people have experienced significant political instability since gaining independence from France in 1960. When French troops finally left the CAR in 1997, internal security was facilitated by the presence of UN troops, the UN Mission to the Central African Republic (MINURCA), the transformed version of a French-financed peacekeeping force composed of troops from several Francophone African states. Most of the UN peacekeeping force withdrew in March 2000.
Ange-Félix Patassé, a member of the Sara ethnic group, is the CAR's elected president, in power since 1993. He was most recently elected to office in 1999, winning out over nine other candidates in an election seen as neither free nor fair. Civil unrest has been high since independence and built to excessive proportions in 2001.
On May 28, 2001, a coup attempt led by former President André Kolingba, an ethnic Yakoma, and soldiers loyal to him was halted after ten days of fighting in which over 200 people were estimated to have been killed. Government troops, assisted by foreign mercenaries, put down the rebellion. Another coup attempt took place in November 2001 when fighting re-erupted, with civilians, including women and children, reportedly killed in the crossfire.
The print media in the CAR are less popular and less influential than the broadcast media, due to the high level of illiteracy in the country and the high costs of printed newspapers, which are out of reach for the average citizen. The CAR's principal languages are French and Sangho. Newspapers and television broadcasts do not typically reach the areas outside the capital or other urban areas. Radio broadcasts are the most widely used means of spreading news.
The government produces three newspapers that represent the perspectives of the MLPC, the president's party. They are Centrafrique Presse , the Agence Centrafricaine de Presse (ACAP) bulletin (an irregularly published news source), and Be African Sango (not published in 2001 due to financial constraints). Eight to twelve independent newspapers also are published, though not all on a regular basis. Echo de CentrAfrique presents views aligned with the president's party but is a private daily paper. Other independent papers are Le Citoyen , Le Novateur, L'Hirondelle , and Le Démocrate .
Although both government-run and private newspapers criticized public policies and alleged corruption prior to an increase in civil unrest during 2001, the government has increasingly restricted freedom of the press and of expression since 2001. Journalists have been fined, arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and threatened with death for covering news about political violence or for publishing reports viewed as unfavorable to the government.
The Central African Republic is one of Africa's most richly endowed countries in terms of natural resources, but its economy is substantially underdeveloped. Diamonds, timber, cotton, coffee, and tobacco are the country's principal exports. Annual per capita income is only about US $290. Life expectancy is very short—just 42 years for men and 46 years for women.
The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. However, government censorship is widely felt.
In the months following the May 2001 attempted coup, the government tried controlling the news media and in November 2001 stopped a press conference from taking place where attorneys planned to protest the government's detention of Assingambi Zarambaud, a lawyer accused of participating in the May coup. In September 2001 police had beaten Advocate Zarambaud in the street for his article in Le Citoyen critical of the government inquiry into the arrest and mistreatment of Abdoulaye Aboukary Tembelé, a human rights defender, in February 2001. Zarambaud was held for three months without being charged.
Late in 2001 the former military chief of staff of the CAR's armed forces, General François Bozizé, who was accused of participating in the November 2001 coup, reported that the government was preventing him from making press statements to Agence France-Presse "because apparently they [his statements] are sensational." Bozizé and his supporters later fled to Chad.
Relations between the government and the press have been inimical since the 2001 coup attempts. Although at the start of the new millennium President Patassé was allowing the media to operate without significant government interference, he made it clear that the press would be restricted if journalists were to use it "to incite rebellion." In February 2001 Abdoulaye Aboukary Tembelé, a journalist and key defender of human rights, was beaten and tortured at the National Gendarmerie headquarters after an opinion poll he produced, deemed unflattering to the president, was published in the Journal des Droits de l'Homme . Entitled "Should President Patassé Resign?," the poll indicated that most citizens supported the idea of the president's resignation.
Later in 2001 government security forces seized printing equipment and issues from the Groupement des Editeurs de la Presse Privé (GEPPIC), an association of editors of the independent press, for criticizing government behavior in the May 2001 attempted coup.
Father Tonino Falagoista, the director of the Roman Catholic radio station Radio Notre Dame , was held by the government for two months after being arrested by the Mixed Commission, set up by the government to investigate the May coup attempt. Father Falagoista had refused to deny his authorship of a report of three mass graves of persons killed by the security forces in the unrest and for criticizing the killing of Yakomas (members of the former president's ethnic group) in the coup attempt.
Many Yakoma journalists fled abroad after May. After the coup attempts even journalists from President Patassé's Sara ethnic group were obliged to subdue their criticism of the regime. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, "The few who dared to speak out against the violence, such as editor Maka Gbossokotto of Le Citoyen, were quickly silenced with death threats."
At the close of 2001 some of the journalists who had left the country during the civil unrest had returned to the CAR. By that time, state media workers, perceiving "the smallest margin for free speech" as being destroyed by "political censors," themselves were protesting government interference in their work.
Attitude toward Foreign Media
Africa Number One, a private radio station belonging to a French broadcasting network and broadcasting from Libreville, Gabon, reaches listeners in the CAR. Radio France International broadcasts in the CAR and includes local reporters among its staff.
Radio Ndeke Luka, a Bangui-based broadcasting station established by the Swiss foundation, Hirondelle, financed by foreign governments and development organizations, and sponsored by the United Nations, offers balanced news coverage and rebroadcasts programs from international sources. Radio Ndeke Luka broadcasts on both FM and short-wave frequencies.
Although private television broadcasting is legally permitted, the government has effectively controlled television broadcasts. Its High Council of Communications has exercised authority over all television programming in the country.
The government-run Radiodiffusion-Centrafricaine Television provides other radio and television stations whose programs have little to say about the political opposition. Radio Centrafrique is the main government station. Radio Notre Dame, financed by the Vatican, is a Roman Catholic station based in Bangui. Radio Nostalgia is another alternative to government radio.
Broadcasting by Radio Centrafrique was briefly halted during the May 2001 coup attempt when rebel soldiers destroyed its main transmitter. During that time the government temporarily replaced its radio broadcasts with those from an impromptu government station, Radio Paix et Liberté, set up in the president's home.
Private satellite and cable television stations are permitted to broadcast their programs into the CAR, but few people can afford satellite or cable television.
Electronic News Media
The government does not limit Internet access. Domestic Internet service and e-mail service are available through a private telecommunications company. A cyber café, Bangui 2000, offers citizens Internet access.
Civil unrest and violence have damaged the ability of journalists and the press to operate freely and without fear of government repression in the Central African Republic. Decades of political instability and questionable democratic practice have made it imperative for alternative news sources, including those financed by outside, foreign sources and non-governmental organizations, to find their way into the CAR. Due to the high levels of illiteracy and poverty that persist in the CAR despite the country's natural richness, radio is the preferred means of news communication and the most popular medium for public expression.
Amnesty International. "Central African Republic." Amnesty International Report 2002 . London: Amnesty International, May 28, 2002. Available from www.amnesty.org/ .
BBC Monitoring. "Country profile: Central African Republic." Reading, UK: British Broadcasting Corporation, 2002. Available from news.bbc.co.uk/ .
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State. "Central African Republic." Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2001 . Washington, DC: Bureau of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of State, 2002. Available from www.state.gov/ .
Committee to Protect Journalists. "Central African Republic." Attacks on the Press in 2001: Africa 2001 . New York, NY: CPJ, 2002. Available from www.cpj.org/ .
Reporters without Borders. "Central African Republic." Africa Annual Report 2002 . Paris, France: Reporters sans frontiers, April 20, 2002. Available at www.rsf.org/ .
Barbara A. Lakeberg-Dridi