South African officials believe that Madagascar’s leader, Andry Rajoelina, is behind the case and that it is harassment of the journalists because of their critical reporting.
Lalatiana Rakotondrazafy and Fidèle Razara Pierre were each sentenced to three months’ imprisonment and fines of 1 million ariary (about R4 000) on Tuesday for defaming and “spreading false news” about businessman Mamy Ravatomanga, a friend and supporter of Rajoelina.
They had reported that Ravatomanga was involved in smuggling rare indigenous and protected rosewood from Madagascar to China.
Other media also reported the charges, which were publicly levelled against Ravatomanga by environmentalists, but were not charged.
The Antananarivo court gave the two journalists leave to appeal the judgment and sentence because the judge said it had been delivered in the absence of the defendants and their lawyers.
It’s not known if they would exercise the right to appeal, but it seems likely.
Rakotondrazafy had earlier said she understood that the fines, which were part of their sentences, would have to be paid to Ravatomanga as damages.
The two journalists and a colleague, Lalandrina Razanajatovo, fled to the South African embassy in Antananarivo in August after learning that government security agents were pursuing them.
The agents had raided their radio station Free FM a few weeks earlier and seized transmission equipment.
Rajoelina’s government was unhappy with a live report they had broadcast that day, quoting a soldier who had participated in a mutiny.
However, the journalists also believe that quoting the soldier gave Rajoelina’s government a pretext to close their radio station, which it had wanted to do anyway because of their critical reporting.
South Africa’s ambassador to Madagascar, Gert Grobler, accommodated the three journalists in his official residence for two months because there was no room for them in the embassy.
They left the embassy last month after an informal agreement was negotiated with Rajoelina’s government that it would not harass them if they toned down their reporting.
They have not broadcast since then but the government has prevented Rakotondrazafy – the Free FM manager – from travelling to Paris to attend her university graduation ceremony.
South African officials believe both this restriction and the court case amount to harassment by the Malagasy authorities and a breach of the agreement under which the journalists left the embassy.
Diplomats said the SADC – of which both Madagascar and South Africa are members – and the UN, the US and other countries were planning “collective action” in response to the judgment against the journalists.
They did not specify what the action would be.