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Publication director handed down prison sentences in three separate libel cases

(RSF/IFEX) - RSF has protested three prison sentences handed down in separate libel cases, on 1 March 2005, to Lola Rasoamaharo, publication director of the independent daily "La Gazette de la Grande Ile". Rasoamaharo remains free, pending appeal.

"We are extremely worried by these court decisions, which pave the way for greater pressure on the independent press," RSF said. "If Madagascar starts imprisoning journalists, it will be clearly choosing to go against the right to freedom of opinion and expression defended by the United Nations, which advocates the abolishment of prison sentences for press offences."

RSF noted that the sentences come a year after the start of a workshop on the role of the media in reinforcing the democratic process, and at a time when the 1990 Communication Code - which made defamation and insult punishable by up to six months in prison - is being amended.

In the first lawsuit, Rasoamaharo was sentenced to two months in prison and fined 3 million ariary (approx. US$1,570; 1,200 euros) for libelling and insulting National Assembly Deputy Speaker Mamy Rakotoarivelo, who also owns two newspapers and a television station. Rakotoarivelo's request that Rasoamaharo be banned from residing in Madagascar was rejected.

The action was brought over a 19 January editorial headlined "A true moron", which was accompanied by Rakotoarivelo's photo. The editorial referred to an incident during a public event in which the deputy speaker insulted "La Gazette de la Grande Ile"'s managing editor, James Rasoamaharo, calling him a moron.

In the second case, Lola Rasoamaharo was sentenced to two months in prison and his editor, Rolly Mercia, given a one-month suspended prison sentence and a symbolic fine of one ariary over a May 2004 report recalling that criminal charges had in past been filed and then dropped against Pakistani businessman Mamod Taky Mamode Abasseky. The businessman said the report had "seriously harmed his honour, respect and credibility."

In the third case, Rasoamaharo was sentenced to one month in prison and damages of 1 million ariary (approx. US$525; 400 euros) for libelling an individual by the name of Gabhy Ramaherijaona.

Frank Raharison, one of the newspaper's executives, told RSF, "This is the first time that a newspaper publication director has received a prison sentence since Madagascar became independent. We are very surprised and we see this as a message of intimidation towards the Madagascan press for being too critical. It is a way of trying to bring journalists into line."

Prison sentences cannot be served concurrently in Madagascar. The newspaper's lawyer has appealed against all three convictions. Other newspapers such as "Le Quotidien", "Ngah", and "Madagascar-Tribune" have cases pending before the courts. In response to these lawsuits and convictions, the country's journalists are planning a day of action and solidarity, for which RSF has pledged its support.

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