July 11, 2001
President Gnassingbé Eyadéma
Office of the President
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is disturbed by the recent government seizure of the entire print run of the private Lomé-based weekly Le Combat du Peuple and the sentencing of Lucien Messan, the paper’s editor-in-chief, to 18 months in prison.
On July 2, according to international news sources, 30 armed police officers stormed the printing press of Le Combat du Peuple, seizing printing plates and all copies of the paper’s latest edition.
Interior Minister Gen. Sizing Walla later claimed that the paper was about to publish “texts of such a nature as would threaten public order.” The minister was referring to an article that implicated the government in a murder plot against former human rights minister Harry Octavius, who is currently in prison.
Unfortunately, such harassment is routine in Togo. Between March and April of last year, authorities seized copies of five independent newspapers that contained articles critical of Your Excellency. On July 31, 2000, security forces confiscated copies of Le Combat du Peuple and Scorpion and detained both of the papers’ editors after they published the Togo Human Rights League’s critical report on human rights in the country. For Le Combat du Peuple, it was the third seizure in less than two months.
Most of these seizures were conducted under Togo’s harsh new Press Code, which was introduced on January 4, 2000. Authorities have used the new law to stifle the flow of information in Togo and to prevent journalists from doing their jobs.
We believe that the new Press Code violates the Togolese Constitution, which specifically guarantees press freedom. The code also violates Togo’s obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, both of which proclaim the freedoms of information and expression.
We fear that the recent seizure of Le Combat du Peuple‘s print run signals a new campaign against this newspaper. The seizure came less than a month after the conviction of its editor-in-chief, Lucien Messan, on charges of fraud. Messan, an outspoken critic of your government, was sentenced to 18 months in prison (with six months suspended) for identifying himself as the “director” of Le Combat du Peuple in a joint letter from the Togolese Association of Private Press Editors (ATEPP). Messan is legally barred from holding the title of “director” because of an earlier conviction relating to his professional work, according to Togolese sources.
Local sources believe that Messan’s arrest and conviction are politically motivated and designed to intimidate the press in the run-up to October parliamentary elections.
CPJ strongly urges Your Excellency to drop the charges against Lucien Messan, and to allow Le Combat du Peuple and other independent newspapers to publish without interference from authorities. We also urge you to ensure that the repressive new Press Code is repealed and that all Togolese journalists may practice their profession in peace.
Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your reply.
Ann K. Cooper