Over the past two weeks in the Republic of Niger -- a landlocked country in West Africa -- several private media outlets have been shut down by the government of President Mahamadou Issoufou, who assumed office in 2011. While these developments have raised considerable alarm inside the country, there has been been little attention paid in regional or international media outlets. This silence plays directly into the hands of a government that has been widely criticized, culminating in what some activists have labeled a potential "authoritarian drift."
The raft of media shutdowns began on July 12 when Sarraounia TV, a private television station, was shuttered after authorities claimed that the owners had failed to pay its taxes. Similar justifications were provided for the temporary shutdown of Tenere TV and Radio on July 18, and the ongoing shutdowns of Canal 3 TV on July 15 and Bonferey, another television and radio outlet, on July 19. Importantly, Bonferey had previously employed critical journalist Baba Alpha, who was deported to Mali earlier this year. Broadcasts from the station have included the first interview with Ibrahim Yacouba, the country's ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs and now likely presidential contender, after he quit the ruling coalition due to concerns about the direction of the country. It is likely not a coincidence that all four media outlets are known for covering opposition and civil society protests, as well as providing airtime to dissenting voices.
Although President Issoufou’s election in 2010 and re-election in 2016 were recognized as free and fair, tensions have been noticeably rising ahead of local elections in January 2020 and an expected presidential vote later in December. In addition to the evident media clampdown, over two dozen civil society activists are unjustly jailed, facing up to three years in prison for exercising their constitutional right to peaceful demonstration. The activists were protesting controversial new laws enacted in the country, including an unpopular Finance Law. In a further escalation this week, the activists' lawyer, Lirwana Abdourahmane, has reportedly been sentenced to a two-year prison term for "contempt of court." Their case is set to resume tomorrow, July 23.
Despite a pledge from President Issoufou to comply with Niger's constitutional term limits, many observers have begun to question his commitment. Niger's crackdown on civil society activists and citizens' constitutional rights, the recent media shutdowns and a justice system seen as increasingly partisan has caused observers, as well as Nigerien citizens, to rightly be worried about the trajectory of the country under its current leadership.