In this Indian Ocean archipelago with a population of less than 1 million, journalists are still often subjected to intimidation and arrest, especially during elections.
La Gazette des Comores, a privately owned daily, and the state-owned Al Watwan newspaper are very popular. But a great deal of news and information circulates online, especially on social media, where people can be more outspoken although the reporting often falls far short of meeting journalistic standards. The Office de Radio et Télé des Comores (ORTC), the only public, free and national TV channel, is regarded as pro-government but has a large audience.
Accustomed to controlling state media, succeeding governments have yet to come to terms with freedom of expression in the privately owned media, making censorship and arrests of journalists and bloggers still common. When the finance minister took office in 2021, he threatened to use “thugs” to “rip to pieces” any journalists who criticised him. A few months before that, the president’s communications coordinator, a renowned former journalist, recognised the existence of a “political culture that will have to change radically.”
Although the 2001 Constitution, revised in 2018, guarantees press freedom, Comorian journalists routinely censor themselves because of the heavy penalties for defamation. A new information law was adopted in 2021 and a journalistic ethics commission was created. But, despite these provisions, journalists are still often pressured to reveal their sources while in police custody.
It is hard for media outlets to make a profit and this undermines their independence. When state subsidies are issued, preference is given to state-owned media that support the government. It’s often difficult for privately owned media to pay their journalists, which encourages recourse to advertorials and other forms of sponsored content presented as regular reporting.
As conservative religious influence is on the wane, the media increasingly cover subjects related to sex and prostitution, with the public’s support.
Intimidation, attacks, arrests, threats, censorship… Between February 2 and 6, 2023, four journalists were heard by the National Gendarmerie’s research brigade following a complaint for “defamation and insult” filed by the ORTC against one of them, and by one of its executives against the other three. A union official had mentioned cases of sexual violence that an ORTC executive allegedly perpetrated against female journalists during the presentation of the Comorian president’s best wishes to the press in January. Faced with the multiplication of convocations of journalists and bloggers in recent years, the National Union of Journalists in the Comoros denounced the systematisation of “the night at the brigade”.