Attacks on the Press 1999: Togo

On July 23, President Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who seized power in 1967, announced that he would not run for reelection. Meanwhile, widely publicized charges that the ruling party rigged the most recent election have heightened official sensitivity to media criticism.

In late April, the government warned independent journalists to refrain from printing false or slanderous articles about state officials and institutions. Under Togo’s current press law, journalists may not be incarcerated before trial. But in mid-May, police arrested Romain Attiso Kudjodji, editor of the independent weekly Le Reporter des Temps Nouveaux, for publishing an account of the ordeal of an opposition activist who claimed to have been tortured by security forces.

Police also raided newsstands and seized copies of the daily Le Combat du Peuple, which contained a critical account of the same incident. Shortly thereafter, police officers who had been criticized by the newspaper TingoTingo walked into its office and beat up several journalists.

Togo’s political crisis intensified in early May after the release of an Amnesty International report charging that state security forces had committed some hundred extrajudicial killings in the wake of the June 1998 elections. The charge was corroborated a week later by the Human Rights League in neighboring Benin, where more than 60 corpses had washed up. Togo’s government threatened the human-rights activists with legal action. France’s President Jacques Chirac, a longtime friend of President Eyadéma, claimed the report was “part of an operation of manipulation.”

In late September, Benin’s media watchdog group ODEM reported that three Benin journalists had admitted taking bribes from President Eyadéma in exchange for rebutting the charges. (See Benin.)

In late December, the government presented a highly controversial new press bill to Parliament, which passed it on January 4, 2000. The new Press Code’s more onerous provisions include a six month jail sentence without parole and heavy fines for “insulting the head of state.”

April 19
Romain Koudjodji, Le Reporter des Temps Nouveaux IMPRISONED

Koudjodji, editor in chief of the independent weekly Le Reporter des Temps Nouveaux, was arrested by police at his Lomé residence in connection with a front-page article in the April 16 edition of Le Reporter. The article reported that police had arrested and tortured an opposition party activist, Messan Victor of the Comité d’Action pour le Renouvellement, who had been distributing pamphlets calling for the boycott of parliamentary elections.

A photograph in the newspaper showed a man said to be Victor with both arms in plaster casts. Charged with “slander and distribution of false information,” Koudjodji stood trial on June 14. On June 28 he received a two-month suspended jail sentence and a fine of 1 million CFA (approximately US$1,700), as well as a symbolic one-franc fine payable to the police. Koudjodji was released the following day, with the understanding that he would pay monthly installments of CFA100,000 or else face imprisonment.

December 23
Roland Kpagli Comlan, L’Aurore IMPRISONED

Law-enforcement officers arrested Comlan, publisher of the private weekly L’Aurore, at his residence on charges of distributing false news and endangering public order. At year’s end he was being held at the Lomé headquarters of the Togolese Gendarmerie, pending further inquiry.

On December 15, L’Aurore erroneously reported the death of a high-school student at the hands of an antiriot police squad. Armed with clubs and guns, the police officers had raided a Lomé high school to put an end to a gathering of student activists. In the violent brawl that ensued, a female student collapsed but did not die.

According to local journalists, the student union announced the girl’s supposed death at a press conference. She later appeared on national television, explaining that she had regained consciousness while in the hospital.