WIELDING A HARSH NEW PRESS CODE, THE TOGOLESE GOVERNMENT stepped up its harassment of the media last year. At the same time, local and international monitors sharpened their focus on human rights violations in the country.
The new Press Code, which replaced a widely praised and far more reasonable 1998 law, was passed on January 4. Since then, defamation has been a crime punishable by prison terms without parole, with increased penalties for subsequent offenses. Unlike the old press law, there is no provision for suspended sentences. The penalty for “insulting the head of state” is up to six months imprisonment and fines of up to two million CFA (US$3170). Other provisions allow police to seize and destroy journalists’ equipment and grant the Interior Ministry power to ban news outlets.
Armed with this new law, officials cracked down on the independent media with renewed vigor. On April 13, police in the capital, Lomé, raided newsstands and seized all copies of the private weekly L’Exilé after the paper incorrectly reported that President Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s daughter had died in a car accident.
Hippolyte Agboh, the publisher of L’Exilé, was arrested the next day and charged with defamation and spreading false news. On May 15, Agboh was convicted and sentenced to three months in prison and a fine of one million CFA (US$1585). While the case against him proceeded, L’Exilé was unable to publish because of police harassment.
Agboh’s imprisonment was just one of a spate of press freedom violations under the new Press Code. Throughout the year, police conducted numerous raids and seizures against media outlets, while prosecutors launched criminal cases against journalists in response to critical reporting on issues of legitimate public concern. Between late March and mid-April, authorities seized copies of five independent Lomé newspapers that contained articles critical of Eyadéma. On July 31, security forces seized copies of the private weeklies Le Combat du Peuple and Scorpion and detained their editors after both papers published the Togo Human Rights League’s report on the sorry state of human rights in the country. For Le Combat du Peuple, it was the third seizure in less than two months.
President Eyadéma was elected chairman of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in July, despite allegations that Togo was violating an international ban on supplying Angolan UNITA rebels with arms in exchange for diamonds. In addition, a joint United Nations-OAU Commission of Inquiry, agreed to by Eyadéma, visited Lomé in November to investigate Amnesty International allegations of extra-judicial killings after the 1998 presidential elections.
The new Togolese Media Observatory (OTM) began operating on August 2, with international funding and a board of directors comprised of journalists from both state-owned and independent media. The OTM’s declared role is to promote press freedom, professionalism, and journalistic ethics. Local journalists hoped the new media watchdog would pressure the government to grant the opposition equal access to state-owned broadcast media.
Though Togo has a dynamic independent press, the country’s 50 percent illiteracy rate makes radio the crucial mass medium. The monopolization of state-run broadcast media by the ruling party was one of the opposition’s main complaints during the 1998 election campaign.
Agbelenko Gbegnedji, Radiodiffusion Television Togolaise
Livingston Zandji, Radiodiffusion Television Togolaise
Young militants from the opposition Forces for Change party assaulted newscaster Gbegnedji and reporter Zandji of the state-operated Radiodiffusion Television Togolaise (RTT), along with eight unidentified RTT workers, during a political meeting in Bé, a suburb of the capital, Lomé.
The attackers threw stones at the RTT crew, which lost a camera and a tape recorder in the melee. Three of the journalists were later admitted to a Lomé hospital with head injuries.
A statement from the President’s office accused Gilchrist Olympio, leader of the Forces for Change party, of masterminding the assault. Forces of Change issued its own statement dismissing the government’s charge.
La Nouvelle Republique
On March 28, security forces raided newsstands in Lomé and seized copies of the independent weekly La Nouvelle Republique in order to block further circulation of a report entitled “Eyadéma, His Destiny and the Accords.”
The story, which was written by an unnamed staff reporter, suggested that the people of Togo had grown weary of President Gnassinbgé Eyadéma’s repeated promises to promote democratic governance.
Le Nouveau Combattant
Togolese police raided newsstands in the capital city, Lomé, and seized copies of the private weekly Le Nouveau Combattant. The raid was prompted by a recent article in which a prominent Lomé lawyer was quoted describing President Gnassingbé Eyadéma as an “illegal diamonds trader.”
The article also quoted a March 10 United Nations report that accused the president and his government of violating a UN embargo to supply the Angolan rebel organization UNITA with weapons in exchange for diamonds.
On April 6, police raided several Lomé newsstands and seized copies of the independent weekly Crocodile in connection with an article in the current issue that criticized army officer Ernest Gnassingbé, the son of Togo’s president.
According to Crocodile, residents of President Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s home town, Kara, where Ernest Gnassingbé was posted, had condemned the officer’s “dictatorial” approach to local security issues.
Lomé police swooped down on local newsstands and seized copies of the private weekly Akekle in connection with a front-page story about a March 10 United Nations report that accused President Gnassingbé Eyadéma and his government of selling arms to the UNITA rebels of Angola in exchange for illegal diamonds, despite a United Nations embargo.
Hippolyte Agboh, L’Exilé
In the early hours of April 13, police raided newsstands in Lomé and seized that week’s edition of L’Exilé, a privately owned weekly newspaper.
The raid was apparently prompted by an article titled “Rumors or Reality: One of the President’s Daughters is Dead.” Quoting unnamed sources, the article incorrectly reported that President Gnassingbe Eyadéma’s daughter, Liling Gnassingbé, had been killed in a car accident earlier that week.
The next day, April 14, Agboh was summoned to President Eyadema’s Lomé residence, where secret service agents questioned him for several hours. The journalist 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 and was charged with defaming the president’s daughter by disseminating false news about her.
Agboh’s trial opened on May 8 at the Correctional Tribunal. The defense lawyer asked that all charges be dropped, on the grounds that Agboh should not have been 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 one 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, when Agboh again appeared before the judge and was sentenced to three months in prison and a fine of one million CFA. Agboh was then handcuffed and driven to Lomé’s Civil Prison. The journalist served out his sentence and was released around August 8.
CPJ protested Agboh’s prosecution in a May 9 letter to President Eyadéma.
Le Combat du Peuple
Togolese police raided warehouses and newsstands in the capital, Lomé, and seized an estimated 4000 copies of the private weekly Le Combat du Peuple.
The police did not explain their actions, but Togolese journalists contacted by CPJ said that the seizure may have been intended to harass the paper’s publisher, Lucien Messan, who has been in hiding since a warrant was issued for his arrest in April.
Police sought Messan in connection with a complaint filed against him by Communications Minister Kofi Panou. The grounds for the complaint were not made public.
In an earlier incident, on June 5, Lomé police seized several hundred copies of Le Combat du Peuple and reportedly burned them without warrant or explanation.
Le Combat du Peuple
Togolese security forces seized copies of Le Combat du Peuple and Scorpion after the two Lomé-based weeklies published a report on human rights abuses in the country that had been compiled by the Togo Human Rights League.