NIAMEY (AFP) — Niger's President Mamadou Tandja, who wants to stay in power after his mandate expires, has strengthened the hand of the body that watches over the media, state radio reported Thursday.
"When a media outlet publishes an article or broadcasts information that endangers state security or public order, the president of the High Council of Communication (CSC) can take any restraining measures without warning," the radio said.
In a decree issued late Wednesday Tandja empowered the CSC president to act henceforth without consulting other members of the council, which hitherto worked by consensus and a vote among its 11 members and issued warnings to the media before cracking down.
Early this month, six of the council members declared themselves opposed to a decision by CSC president Daouda Diallo to "suspend until further notice" the private radio and television group Dounia, ruling that it had "called for insurrection in the forces of defence and security."
Dounia had broadcast an opposition statement that accused Tandja of carrying out a "coup d'etat" with a series of measures in June, when he assumed special powers and declared a state of emergency, while also forging ahead with a plan to hold a constitutional referendum on August 4.
Dounia appealed against Diallo's ruling to the courts, which authorised it to resume broadcasting.
State radio said that Wednesday's decision on the media was part of Tandja's "exceptional powers" to rule the big, deeply poor but uranium-rich sub-Saharan country by decree.
Observers said that the measure was an attempt to muzzle the response in the private press to the political crisis triggered by Tandja's bid to gain a third term in office after his second five-year mandate expires in December.
"This is a serious decision, a blank cheque given to the CSC president to act and we should expect a series of closures of media outlets" that represent the opposition, Boubacar Diallo, the chairman of the Association of Editors of the Independent Press, told AFP.
In northern Niger, the most radical of the armed Tuareg rebel movements, the Front of Forces for Recovery (FFR), meanwhile warned Thursday that it would disrupt a constitutional referendum called for August 4, resorting to violence if necessary.
"This referendum won't happen, we'll stop it happening by every means where we operate," FFR military leader Rhissa Ag Boula told the BBC. "Anyone who comes to campaign or vote, we'll beat them up and burn the polling boxes."
Ag Boula, currently in exile in Paris, added that the FFR supported the political opposition to Tandja, who has also roused increasing concern in the international community with measures against his opponents.
The opposition has formed a broad-based Front for the Defence of Democracy, including political parties and civil society organisations.
Tandja, a 71-year-old former colonel, is out to extend his stay in office beyond the December 22 deadline stipulated by the law.
He has already dissolved parliament and the Constitutional Court, two key institutions opposed to his plan. On Wednesday, 15 opposition members of the Independent National Electoral Commission resigned rather than be party to the referendum plan.
In the referendum Tandja plans to put to the people, the constitution would be changed to allow him to "retain full powers" until 2012 and then to run for as many further mandates as he wishes.
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