Attacks on the Press 2000: Benin

AS THE MAJOR POLITICAL COALITIONS CAMPAIGNED VIGOROUSLY in anticipation of the 2001 presidential elections, independent journalists enjoyed relative freedom in reporting on issues of national importance, breaking stories of rumored coup plots, and allegations of corruption and financial misappropriation by members of President Mathieu Kerekou’s administration.

Government and opposition parties enjoyed equal access to state-run television and radio, a policy whose implementation was monitored by the official High Authority for Audio-Visual Communications (HAAC) and by the journalist-run Press Freedom Observatory.

In January, however, members of the political opposition accused President Kerekou of manipulating the press and diverting public attention from national issues when he released a statement claiming a coup plot against him but provided no evidence to support the allegation. Kerekou was elected in April 1996 after ruling as a left-leaning military dictator from 1972 until 1989.

A heated media debate ensued about the president’s real intentions, with editorials often turning bitter and accusatory. In response, the HAAC called on local journalists to refrain from becoming “creators of scandals, pyromaniacs, or praise-singers” and to report the news even-handedly with “priority always given to information over commentary.” President Kerekou, meanwhile, bowed to intense criticism and apologized for alarming the public.

Had the president been a journalist, he might have been arrested and jailed for up to three months, under Benin’s stringent Press Code, for spreading false news. Such was the fate of Vincent Foly, managing editor of the daily Le Point in Cotonou, Benin’s largest city. On January 26, Foly was arrested on an outstanding warrant for a September 1999 conviction in a criminal defamation case. (Foly had not yet served his sentence, perhaps because of an HAAC ruling that journalists cannot be jailed for offenses related to their work.) He was held at a Cotonou jail until February 2, and then released.

Local observers suspected that Foly’s arrest actually stemmed from an opinion piece, published in that day’s edition of Le Point, in which he criticized the country’s judicial system. The journalist protested his detention in an appeal to the Supreme Court, but with Benin’s judiciary and political parties bracing for the 2001 elections, it seemed unlikely that the high court would issue a ruling anytime soon.

Vincent Foly, Le Point

Police arrested Foly, managing editor of the daily newspaper Le Point, and held him in the civil prison in the capital, Cotonou. An arrest warrant had been out for Foly since September 7, 1999, following a court decision to sentence him to one year in prison for libel. The case arose from an article about alleged fraud within the Agency for Air Navigation Security that Foly had published while working for the daily Le Matin.

On the day of Foly’s arrest, another of his articles appeared in Le Point, this one criticizing the Beninois judicial system. He was released from detention on February 2, and scheduled to appear in court on March 7.

Foly has issued an appeal against his conviction. The March 7 hearing was postponed several times. A final verdict is expected sometime in 2001.