Under the rule of President Mathieu Kerekou, who was elected in April 1996 after ruling as a left-leaning military dictator from 1972 until 1989, the Benin government has won international praise for its efforts to liberalize the country's political environment.
These efforts have not always worked to the advantage of local journalists. In January, the governmental High Authority for Audio-Visual Communications (HAAC) ordered the one-month suspension of "Grogne Matinale," a morning talk show on the independent radio station Golfe FM, and "Faits Divers," a similar program on the private TV station Chaine 2. In a statement, the HAAC alleged that both programs had incited hatred, violence, and regionalism by airing the racially charged comments of audience members upset by an HAAC decision not to extend Golfe FM's broadcast license to northern Benin.
Following the HAAC decision, the television station Chaine 2 changed the format of its program by pre-recording viewer questions and subjecting them to editorial scrutiny. "Grogne Matinale," however, was back on the air a month later in its original format.
Although the HAAC has ruled that no journalist may be detained for offenses related to his or her work, six local editors and reporters were convicted in absentia of defamation and sentenced to prison terms in early September. The grounds for the charges remain unclear.
The convicted journalists included editor Patrick Adjamonsi and reporter Basile Pchibozo of the newspaper L'Aurore, editor Celestin Abissi and reporter Charles Tori of the daily L'Oeil du Peuple, and editors Vincent Folly and Pierre Matchoudo of Le Matin. All six journalists were charged with defamation. They received prison sentences ranging from six months to one year and fines as high as three million CFA francs (US$4,800).
Low salaries and Benin's recurring economic troubles have encouraged certain local journalists to accept bribes in exchange for favorable press coverage. In a statement released on September 7, for example, the media watchdog group Professional Media Code of Conduct and Ethics Monitoring Group (ODEM) accused journalists Edgar Kaho, Luc Kodjo, and Patrick Adjamonsi of taking bribes from Togolese president Gnassingbé Eyadéma.
The three journalists reportedly received 1.5 million CFA francs (US$2,400) each to whitewash human-rights groups' charges that the government of Togo perpetrated extrajudicial killings. Amnesty International and Benin's Human Rights League made the charges after more than sixty corpses washed up on Benin's coastline (see Togo). The ensuing scandal prompted ODEM to draft a code of ethics, Article 5 of which states that Benin journalists should not accept in-kind payment for services rendered or expected in the form of media coverage. It remains to be seen how this code of conduct will be enforced in a country where journalists earn so little.