Attacks on the Press 2001: Benin

In March, President Mathieu Kerekou won a second term in office by a landslide amid allegations of fraud from the opposition. Press coverage of the candidates became a major issue in the months preceding the vote.

In an early January television address, Timothé Adanlin, head of the High Authority for Audio-Visual Communications (HAAC), cautioned reporters against distortion of facts and other unethical practices during the electoral campaign.

The HAAC, Benin’s official media regulator, set out strict rules for all broadcasters during the campaign period, limiting the amount of airtime allocated to each party on the public broadcast network. It also prohibited campaign-related briefings by press spokesmen for government officials or ministries. The HAAC claimed that both measures were taken in the interest of fairness and transparency during the election campaigns.

However, the HAAC faced criticism from some quarters. The Communist Party of Benin protested Adanlin’s admonitions, saying they were an attempt to “muzzle the press” during an important period of national debate.

These strict regulations notwithstanding, Benin’s media covered the election vigorously. While many found the coverage comprehensive and analytical, an August report by the independent Media Ethics Observatory (ODEM) found that most leading dailies supported President Kerekou’s re-election. Local journalists admitted that despite the HAAC’s attempts to ensure fairness, candidates and their parties were able to influence press coverage with bribes.

The local press has come a long way since the last elections were held in 1996. Though figures vary, Benin now has as many as 18 independent dailies and 40 magazines. Since a liberal broadcasting law was passed in 1997, about a dozen private radio stations and two television stations have begun operations. The lively independent press, known for its diversity and for its informed criticism of state officials, is admired across West Africa.

Though authorities have generally been tolerant of criticism from the media, a law passed in 1997 makes libel a criminal offence punishable with jail time. Print journalists are also challenged by high printing costs, poor distribution services outside urban areas, and low literacy rates. Most journalists receive very low salaries, and many are not paid at all, making them susceptible to bribes.

In an effort to address this problem, the government has offered 300 million CFA francs (US$411,900) in aid to the private media every year since 1997.

January 18

Joel Gbegan, Golfe FM
Laurent Akobi, La Cloche

Police assaulted Gbegan, a reporter for Golfe FM, and Akobi, a reporter for the daily La Cloche, in the town of Abomey Calavi, some 112 kilometers (70 miles) outside Benin’s capital, Cotonou.

The incident occurred as riot police dispersed a student protest. The police claimed they mistook the journalists for student demonstrators.

“They grabbed me by the belt and beat me,”Gbegan told Agence France-Presse. “Then they seized my work equipment and my journalist identification papers and trampled on them.”

Gbegan and Akobi were released after police realized they were journalists. However, the Union of Private Press Reporters condemned the assault. The next day, several journalists boycotted a press briefing by Information Minister Gaston Zossou.

September 28

Patrick Adjamonsi, L’Aurore
Titus Folly, L’Aurore

Adjamonsi and Folly, respectively the publisher and editor-in-chief of the independent daily L’Aurore, were detained by police over a September 27 article by Adjamonsi alleging that Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network had connections in Benin.

A secretary who worked at L’Aurore was also detained.

Adjamonsi’s piece also alleged that U.S. intelligence services were investigating Benin in the wake of the September 11 attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

On September 28, the Benin Cabinet held an extraordinary meeting to discuss the controversial article. That same day, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP), the government issued a statement condemning the article and asking the Beninese press to avoid publishing stories that “tarnish the image of the country.” The statement also criticized the local press for its allegedly lax journalistic ethics.

Government ministers further called on the High Authority for Audio-Visual Communications (HAAC), the official regulatory body for the media, to take action against the newspaper, the United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network reported.

Also on September 28, L’Aurore printed a retraction of the story, saying that Benin was not in any way involved in the terrorist attacks, AFP reported. That same evening, however, police detained Folly and the secretary for questioning. Both were released after a few hours.

On the morning of September 29, police arrested Adjamonsi at his home and took him to the police station, where he was questioned about the article for four hours and then released.

Later that day, the HAAC issued a statement condemning the paper and its publisher for their allegations. Sources in Cotonou told CPJ that no further disciplinary action was taken against L’Aurore and that the paper came out on schedule the following week.

On December 3, the HAAC announced that Adjamonsi’s press accreditation would be withdrawn, and that L’Aurore would be excluded from receiving any state aid. The Beninese government distributes 300 million CFA francs (US$407,301) every year among the private media.

The local journalists association condemned the HAAC’s decision, calling it arbitrary and unconstitutional, and vowed to fight to restore their colleague’s rights.