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Judicial harassment forces opposition weekly to stop publishing

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders has voiced dismay at the decision of a Seychelles court to sentence the privately-owned weekly "Regar" to pay an exorbitant fine, thereby forcing one of the archipelago's only two opposition newspapers to suspend publication.

"The government and its allies have repeatedly sued 'Regar' on the slightest pretext for years, taking advantage of a biased judicial system," the press freedom organisation said. "Today they have achieved what they wanted - to silence one of the Seychelles' few sources of criticism."

Reporters Without Borders added: "If it were interested in respecting the rules of democracy, the government would reform this absurd system under which a newspaper is convicted by a judge appointed by the plaintiff's lawyer. It should also realise that forcing critical media out of existence is bad for the country and, above all, bad for the public, which has a right to hear all points of view."

The management of "Regar", which supports the opposition Seychelles National Party (SNP), decided to suspend publication from 26 October 2006 in protest against the campaign of legal harassment to which it has been subjected for years.

"Regar" editor Roger Mancienne told Reporters Without Borders the decision was prompted by the latest lawsuit, in which judge Ranjun Perera, on 23 October, ordered it to pay 350,000 rupees (52,000 euros) in damages to Seychelles tourism board president Maurice Lousteau-Lalanne for publishing a photo of him that had already appeared in the pro-government "Seychelles Nation".

The photo showed him fishing near an island in a marine reserve. "Regar"'s caption suggested that Lousteau-Lalanne, who is the former president of the Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF), was fishing in an area protected by the SIF. It was alleged during the trial that SIF members are exempted by an internal regulation.

"We cannot continue to publish while constantly under the threat of unjustified lawsuits from political leaders and government officials with claims of defamation of character on grounds which we consider to be flimsy but which are invariably upheld by judges who are selective in their application of the law," "Regar"'s final issue said. The newspaper has appealed, but Mancienne said the appeal was unlikely to be heard before April 2007.

"It is above all against an unfair and politicised judicial system that we want to protest," Mancienne told Reporters Without Borders. He added that Lousteau-Lalanne's lawyer, France Bonté, who is on the central committee of the ruling Seychelles People's Progressive Front (SPPF), is president of the body responsible for appointing judges.

BACKGROUND:
"Regar" has been sued eight times by the Seychelles authorities since its creation in 1992, and it has had to pay damages to the police chief, the army chief of staff, the tourism minister and the foreign minister. Until now the damages awarded have never been more than 175,000 rupees (26,000 euros). Other lawsuits are pending - two brought in 1999 and 2000 by former President Albert René, and one brought in 2001 by his successor, President James Michel. A total of 12 million rupees (1.8 million euros) in damages have been requested (see IFEX alerts of 15 March 2002 and 12 February 2001).

"Regar"'s press was also the target of an arson attack on the night of 8 December 2005, which is still unpunished (see alert of 13 December 2005).

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