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A senior Malagasy radio journalist has described how she and her colleagues fled into hiding in July and then asked the South African embassy in the country for protection after government soldiers raided and closed their radio station.
Lalatiana Rakotondrazafy, manager of Free FM 104.2, and two of her colleagues have been living in South African embassy premises since August 1, for protection against Andry Rajoelina’s government. They seem destined to stay there for quite a while longer as South Africa and other regional governments try to negotiate their freedom.
Rajoelina’s government closed Free FM on July 22 after it broadcast a statement from army mutineers vowing to remove Rajoelina, who himself came to power in a coup in March 2009.
Rakotondrazafy said from her South African embassy refugee in Antananarivo at the weekend that all the radio station had done was to report the news of the mutineers’ statement on Sunday, July 22. She said one of her reporters, like other journalists, was with the soldiers who had mutinied and asked one of them for comment. His remarks over the phone were broadcast live on Free FM. The soldier said the mutineers intended to remove Rajoelina’s administration and replace it with a military committee.
“We didn’t say anything, we just had our reporter in place, as others did, and he talked directly to the mutineers and let them speak on live radio,” Rakotondrazafy said in an e-mail interview.
“They didn’t call anyone to arms. For us that was a piece of news like any other, and our reporter on the ground only did his/her work.” But soldiers arrived at the radio station soon after the report and cut its electricity, ending broadcasting.
The radio technicians fled, taking essential equipment with them as a precaution. The soldiers left.
But that evening Rakotondrazafy and some of her colleagues re-installed the equipment and went on air to explain what had happened.
They then heard from a source in the police that authorities had decided earlier that day to close Free FM.
“We decided to take the initiative ourselves by announcing on air that Free FM would stop broadcasting because there was no freedom to express ideas which did not go along with the powers that be, and freedom of the press was only tolerated by the transitional regime if you expressed a point of view favourable to it.”
They were then alerted that a truck carrying dozens of soldiers was on its way to the studio, so they grabbed some of the equipment and fled into the bush.
From hiding, the journalists heard the government announce that evening that their radio station would be prosecuted for broadcasting the mutineers’ statement. After a week in hiding, Rakotondrazafy and two of her senior colleagues showed up at the South African embassy on August 1.
“We were all threatened and we could not continue working at all. All our colleagues now have to hide. We were asking for help, in the name of the freedom of the press and freedom of expression, against those threats and harassments against journalists and radio stations which should immediately stop.
“We asked the South African embassy for protection and they kindly decided to give us protection.” On August 7, they heard the Ministry of Justice had announced a warrant had been issued for their arrest for broadcasting the mutineers’ statement.
But she claimed the government had been pursuing Free FM for months for “revealing compromising documents and information about the corruption and bad governance of the Rajoelina regime, especially some people around him.”
South Africa’s ambassador to Madagascar, Gert Grobler, confirmed the embassy, in consultation with the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) in Pretoria and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) liaison office in Antan-anarivo, had been affording protection to the journalists since August 1.
He added that as the matter “went to the core” of the SADC Roadmap for Madagascar, the SADC troika was dealing with it. The SADC troika team trying to persuade the Malagasy politicians to agree on the roadmap to new free and fair elections, scheduled for next May, is headed by South Africa’s Deputy International Relations and Co-operation Minister Marius Fransman.
The flight of the journalists to the embassy has complicated SADC’s diplomacy because Rajoelina’s government has accused South Africa of undermining its judiciary by harbouring fugitives from justice. It has also accused South Africa of compromising its neutrality as a mediator. South Africa was already under such suspicion because it has allowed Marc Ravalomanana, the elected president ousted by Rajoelina in 2009, to live in South Africa. He is also wanted by the Malagasy legal authorities for alleged complicity in the fatal shooting of protesters by presidential guards before he was toppled.
But Dirco spokesman, Clayson Monyela, insisted at the weekend that the embassy would continue to protect the journalists until their freedom had been guaranteed. He said their plight would be added to issues which the SADC troika was dealing with as it tried to implement its roadmap. – Independent Foreign Service