Jean Etienne Laokole, a journalist and blogger operating in Chad, was walking along the street in his home town, the capital city, N’Djamena, with his family one evening when he was stopped by police, bundled into a car and taken away for questioning.
That was on 22 March. Today, nearly six weeks later, he is still in a filthy jail, still waiting for his controversial trial for defamation.
It was the second time he had been questioned that Friday after publishing two articles critical of government figures. One piece revealed the names of alleged intelligence agents working for the minister of housing, while the other attacked the president, Idriss Deby’s, management of his government.
Journalism is extremely dangerous in this politically unstable country. Only last night a number of opposition figures were arrested amid allegations from the government of an attempted involving an opposition MP. As such, Laokole had published his work under an assumed name on his blog. However, the authorities worked out his identity.
As far as the 47-year-old journalist’s wife and five children were concerned, for three days he disappeared off the map.
Eventually a lawyer, Pierre Mianlenger, got in to see him in the disease-infested and dangerous jail complex known as Amsinene. As Mianlenger described: “It’s very unhealthy and dangerous there. The conditions of detention are so poor that they are akin to a punishment: cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”
He adds: “I had a client who died there recently because of an illness he caught while jailed at the prison.”
Laokole is strong and remains healthy. So far. But, says his lawyer: “He is scared. He is scared not only for himself but for what might happen to his family. What he wrote is extremely controversial.”
His family are suffering hugely from worry about his condition, but are “bearing up” under the pressure, Mianlenger says.
Laokole eventually came before a magistrate on 26 March and has been charged with defamation, but also for writing articles “held to affect the person of the head of state”.
He has been refused bail and faces a sentence of three months’ jail and a fine that could reach 1m CFA francs (£1300) – a huge amount for a Chad citizen.
There is, says Mianlenger, absolutely no way Laokole should be being held in custody while he awaits his trial. Every day he has to spend in the filthy Amsinena camp is a danger.
The police believe he has a source, or an accomplice in the government, who has been leaking him information for his articles. He is repeatedly questioned about the source’s identity, his lawyer says. Perhaps that explains his lengthy detention.
The NGO Human Rights Without Borders put Mianlenger in touch with Laokole’s family and he is working for them pro bono: “I think it’s important for everyone to have a proper defence and lawyer,” he says.
Mianlenger hopes the Independent’s Voices in Danger project will help his client’s cause: “I hope more and more people know about him. That could help and protect him.”
The Independent asks if he thinks Laokole, the son of an opposition party leader, would continue with his critical journalism.
He laughs: “I haven’t asked him that question, but even though he is clearly scared, I can tell you he will. He is a very strong minded writer and I don’t think he could ever stop. He will not give up.”
Attempts by The Independent to get a comment on his case from Chad’s embassy in Washington went unanswered.
Interview by Marie Winckler. Please distribute this story about Jean Etienne’s case through social media.
Raise his case with your local MPs and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. You can help pressurise the Chad government to give him a fair trial and release him on bail by writing to the President:
Monsieur Idriss Deby
Président de la République
Présidence de la République
BP 74, N’Djamena
Fax: +235 2251 45 01
This article is part of the series Voices in Danger, which aims to highlight the plight of journalists working in difficult conditions around the world.
Background on Chad
The authorities and the print media in Chad have what Reporters Without Borders describes as “a climate of permanent mistrust” which has prevailed for years. That would be healthy, were Chad a fully functioning democracy.
Faced with shortages of all natural resources bar oil, and with an influx of refugees from neighbouring Sudan and Central African Republic, this is one of the world’s most troubled countries. In one week of April alone, the UN refugee agency reported, some 50,000 fled over its border from Sudan.
Attempting to rule is President Idriss Deby, who gained power in a coup in 1990. That power grab saw the army general turn against the previous president, who had also, in his time, seized power in a military overthrow. There have been numerous coup attempts against Deby since.
For journalists trying to cover events here, while Chad’s constitution guarantees media freedom, the reality is somewhat different.In August 2010, a repressive Press law was passed allowing for exorbitant fines for defamation and the suspension of newspapers for up to three years if they transgress. Journalists, like opposition activists, are regularly harassed, attacked and jailed.
Jean-Claude Nekim, editor of the opposition newspaper N’Djamena Bi-Hebdo was given a one-year suspended sentence last September. His newspaper was suspended for three months after running a story condemning bad governance in the country. Just before Christmas, two editors of the Abba Garde (which translates roughly as The Sentinel newspaper), were harassed and attacked in N’Djamena. Local journalists told the Committee for the Protection of Journalists they believed the attacks were in response to critical coverage of the government. According to Reporters Without Borders, abduction, kidnap attempts, harassment and threats to journalists create a climate of danger and fear. Many Chadian journalists operate in exile. The case for Jean Etienne Laokole will only make that atmosphere worse.