Togo: CPJ protests government’s use of criminal defamation laws to muzzle press

May 9, 2000

President Gnassingbe Eyadéma
Office of the President
Lomé, Togo

VIA FAX: 011 228 21 20 40

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is disturbed by the continued detention of Hippolyte Agboh, publisher of the private weekly L’Exilé, who is being prosecuted on criminal defamation charges. We are equally concerned about the recent spate of reprisals against news organizations that have criticized your government.

In the early hours of April 13, police raided newsstands in Lomé and seized that week’s edition of L’Exilé, according to CPJ’s sources in Togo. The raid was apparently prompted by an article titled “Rumors or Reality: One of President’s Daughters is Dead.” Quoting unnamed sources, the article incorrectly reported that Your Excellency’s daughter, Liling Gnassingbé, had been killed in a car accident earlier that week.

The next day, April 14, Your Excellency summoned Agboh to your Lomé residence, where secret service agents questioned him for several hours. Agboh was arrested after his interrogation, and held at a local police station. On April 15, he appeared before a judge at Lomé’s Correctional Tribunal. He was later charged with defaming Your Excellency’s daughter by disseminating false news. L’Exilé, meanwhile, has been unable to publish since mid-April due to severe police harassment, according to journalists in Togo.

Agboh’s trial opened on May 8 at Lomé’s Correctional Tribunal. The defense lawyer asked that all charges against Agboh be dropped, on the grounds that he should not be prosecuted for a simple professional error. The state prosecutor asked that Agboh be sentenced to a three-month prison term and ordered to pay a fine of 1 million CFA (US$2000), under the new Press Code of January 4, 2000. At the end of the hearing, the trial was adjourned to May 15. Agboh was then handcuffed and driven to Lomé’s Civil Prison, where he remained as of today.

While CPJ understands that Your Excellency might have been angered by a false news report about your daughter’s death, we believe that journalists should never be jailed because of their work. A journalist’s job is to disseminate news and information, often gathered from sources throughout civil society and government. Deadline pressure, which is ultimately driven by society’s need for timely information about matters of public interest, may sometimes cause them to report inaccuracies in the information given them by these sources. In such cases, it is the journalist’s responsibility to publish a correction at the first opportunity.

As Your Excellency is no doubt aware, a functioning democracy depends on the uncensored exchange of information and ideas. Because news media play a vital role in this exchange, journalists should never face criminal prosecution for what they publish. Civil litigation, as outlined in Togo’s September 1992 Constitution, provides sufficient safeguards for any citizen, members of Your Excellency’s family included, whose reputation has been unfairly damaged by a press report. Moreover, we believe that public officials, who govern by popular consent, must accept and even encourage scrutiny and criticism, including hostile criticism, and should only seek legal redress through civil action in the most extraordinary circumstances.

As an organization of journalists committed to promoting press freedom around the world, CPJ regrets that Togo’s Press Code of January 4, 2000, has replaced the widely-praised and far more reasonable 1998 press law. Violations of the new code are punishable by jail sentences of up to six months and fines as high as US$3,200. We believe that the prosecution of journalists under this law will greatly inhibit the flow of information in Togo. Along with most journalists in Togo and the rest of the world, CPJ believes that criminal defamation statutes have no place in a democratic country.

In fact, statutes that criminalize speech are generally employed not to protect the reputations of those who have been defamed, but rather to suppress critical reporting on issues of legitimate public concern. Certainly, this has been the case in Togo. On March 28, for example, security forces, citing the new press law, raided newsstands in Lomé and seized copies of the independent weekly La Nouvelle Republique to block further circulation of an article titled “Eyadéma, His Destiny and the Accords.” Written by an unnamed staff reporter, the story suggested that the people of Togo had grown weary of Your Excellency’s promises to promote democracy in the country.

On March 29, police seized copies of the private weekly Le Nouveau Combattant in connection with the article “Counsel Occansey Speaks Out,” in which a prominent Lomé lawyer was quoted describing Your Excellency as an “illegal diamonds trader.” The article also quoted a March 10 United Nations report that accused Your Excellency’s government of bypassing a UN embargo in order to supply Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA rebel organization in Angola with weapons in exchange for diamonds.

On April 6, police stormed several Lomé newsstands and seized copies of the independent weekly Crocodile in connection with two stories in that week’s issue, one of which criticized your son Ernest Gnassingbé, an officer in the Togolese army. The article quoted residents of Your Excellency’s hometown, Kara, where Ganassingbé was posted, condemning what they described as his “dictatorial” approach to local security issues.

In all these cases, government officials acted in accordance with the new Press Code. But the new Press Code violates Togo’s Constitution of September 1992, which specifically guarantees press freedom. It also violates Togo’s obligations under international covenants such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter of People’s and Human Rights, which uphold the freedom of information and expression.

CPJ therefore urges Your Excellency to use your good offices to ensure that the Press Code of January 4 is repealed, that all charges against Hyppolite Agboh are unconditionally dropped, and that all journalists in Togo are free to seek, receive and impart information without fear of reprisals.

We await your reply.


Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director