Following widespread allegations of human rights abuses in Togo, President Gnassingbé Eyadema and the ruling Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais (RPT) struggled all year to prove their commitment to democracy, promising parliamentary elections that were ultimately postponed until 2002 for “technical reasons.” Desperate to improve its international image while retaining a tight grip on power, RPT authorities used a harsh press code and dubious interpretations of the constitution to crack down on journalists and opposition leaders.
Most Togolese newspapers openly back either the RPT or opposition parties, leaving little room for independent journalism. Financial pressures allegedly lead journalists of all political persuasions to accept bribes from politicians and businessmen. Though the opposition press is outspoken in its criticism of authorities, it is confined for the most part to the capital, Lomé.
Togolese journalists engaged in a fierce debate over an Amnesty International report that accused their government of carrying out hundreds of extra-judicial killings after the 1998 presidential elections. Pro-government newspapers accused opposition leaders of conspiring with Amnesty to tarnish the country’s image. Opposition newspapers demanded that the RPT admit responsibility for the alleged violations.
In a March address at United Nations offices in Geneva, Prime Minister Agbeyome Kodjo falsely claimed that independent Togolese journalists had unanimously denied there was any truth to the Amnesty report. Earlier that month, in what was perceived as an implicit warning against writing on the topic, Kodjo asked a gathering of independent journalists whether they had personally seen the dead bodies. Many of the reporters present admitted they had not. Kodjo apparently based his claim on this discussion.
The Togolese Private Press Publishers Association (ATEPP) issued a statement accusing the prime minister of “seeking to take advantage of the private press.” In early June, Lucien Messan, editor of the independent newspaper Le Combat du Peuple, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for forgery after he signed the ATEPP statement using the technically inaccurate title of “publication director.” Independent journalists believe that Messan’s conviction was intended to intimidate the free press ahead of the parliamentary elections.
Authorities were generally sensitive about press coverage of the country’s poor human rights record. The church-owned Jeunesse Espoir Radio was shut down in January when it announced a mass for Sylvanus Olympio, the country’s first president, killed in a 1963 coup led by the current president. And police seized entire print runs of the independent papers Le Regard and Le Reporter de Temps Nouveaux when they published articles about political violence in past years.
Chris Steele-Perkins, a photojournalist with the German magazine Der Spiegel, had his film confiscated in July while he was working on a story about child labor in the region.
Reporting on Togo’s rampant official corruption landed several journalists in jail and resulted in more newspaper seizures. Opposition journalists received harsher treatment than their pro-government colleagues. In October, Alphonse Nevame Klu, director of the pro-opposition newspaper Nouvel Echo, was jailed for reporting on graft. So were Abdoul-Ganoiu Bawa and Rigobert Bassadou, of the pro-government Echos d’Afrique. But while Bawa and Bassadou were released shortly after their arrests, Klu was detained for more than two weeks.
In spite of the government’s attempt to control broadcast media through the High Authority for Audio-visual Communications (HAAC), pirate radio stations have flourished in Lomé. After licensing four new radio stations in early January, most of which broadcast religious and commercial content, HAAC President Georges Combevi Agbodjan vowed to “end the anarchic proliferation” of unlicensed stations. Agbodjan added that “freedom of expression…is not in danger in Togo so long as private radio stations strictly adhere to HAAC regulations.”
Jeunesse Espoir Radio
Soldiers sent by the local prefecture sealed the premises of Jeunesse Espoir Radio, a low-wattage radio station owned by the Catholic Church, after it announced that a memorial mass would be held for Sylanus Olympio, the country’s first president, who was killed in a coup on January 13, 1963.
President Gnassingbe Eyadema led the coup and seized power for himself in 1967.
Jeunesse Espoir Radio is owned by the Mission of Tabligbo and based in the Diocese of Aneho in southern Togo. The station remained closed at year’s end, and it appeared unlikely that it would reopen.
Police raided newsstands in the Togolese capital, Lomé, and seized more than 3,000 copies of the pro-opposition weekly Le Regard, according to the paper’s publisher. The seizure apparently resulted from an article alleging that the Togolese government had declined the European Union’s offer to help fund legislative elections scheduled for October.
Interior Minister General Sizing Walla said the seizure of Le Regard was justified by the country’s new press laws, a collection of vague and often contradictory statutes that empower his ministry to ban or seize any publication whose content it finds objectionable.
Lucien Messan, Le Combat du Peuple
IMPRISONED, LEGAL ACTION
Messan, editor of the independent weekly Le Combat du Peuple and one of Togo’s most senior journalists, presented himself at a Lomé police station after receiving a summons.
Police told Messan that Interior Minister General Sizing Walla was charging him with fraud and then transferred the journalist to Lomé civil prison, where he was detained pending trial.
Messan mistakenly used an incorrect title when he signed a statement from the Togolese Private Press Publishers Association to the United Nations denouncing Prime Minister Agbeyome Kodjo’s false statements about the Togolese private press to the United Nations. Messan identified himself as “publication director” of Le Combat du Peuple rather than as “editor-in-chief.”
Due to an earlier conviction relating to his work, Messan is legally barred from holding the title of “director,” a position his son now occupies at the paper.
On June 5, Messan was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 18 months in prison, with six months suspended. It is widely believed that Messan’s conviction came in reprisal for his critical reporting on the ruling Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais party and was meant to intimidate the press during the run-up to October parliamentary elections.
To protest Messan’s conviction, 13 independent Togolese newspapers stopped publishing from June 12-15, according to local sources. The editorial staff of two government newspapers also called for a presidential pardon in the case.
President Eyadéma subsequently pardoned Messan, who was released from prison on October 28.
Alphonse Nevame Klu, Nouvel Echo
Klu, director of the private weekly Nouvel Echo, was detained and placed in police custody after he responded to a summons from the Ministry of the Interior.
Klu’s detention stemmed from an article in Nouvel Echo alleging that a government official was hiding several billion CFA francs in his basement. The police accused Klu of “distributing false news” and demanded that he reveal his sources.
During his detention, the journalist allegedly admitted that the article was based on unconfirmed rumors. At the behest of the minister of the interior, Klu then published a retraction of the story, which was also broadcast on public radio and television.
Local journalists suspected that authorities wrote Klu’s retraction for him, and that he was given the choice between signing it or remaining in jail.
On October 26, Klu was transferred to a civil prison in the capital, Lomé, where he was released on October 30. No formal charges were brought against him.
Abdoul-Ganiou Bawa, Echos d’Afrique
Rigobert Bassadou, Echos d’Afrique
Bawa and Bassadou, publisher and editor, respectively, of the private weekly Echos d’Afrique, were arrested and jailed in the Togolese capital, Lomé.
Police accused them of printing “false news” that “undermined the honor and dignity” of the police chief in the town of Dankpen.
A September 26 Echos d’Afrique article reported that the official in question had been bribed 1,130,000 CFA francs (US$1,520) to ignore the illegal sale of teak wood originally destined for the restoration of a town bridge. The weekly also asked Togo’s state-appointed Anti-Corruption Commission to probe the accusation.
Bassadou was released the next day. Bawa was released on November 2. The charges against them were dropped.
Togolese police seized most copies of the October 29 issue of the pro-opposition weekly Motion d’Information, which contained an article reporting on graft allegations against members of President Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s regime.
The paper estimated that the Eyadéma administration had stolen more than 1 billion CFA francs (about US$1.36 million), citing recent findings by the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission.
Interior Ministry officials justified the seizure under a legal provision added to the country’s Press Code in January 2000.
Togo’s High Authority for Audiovisual Communications (HAAC) ordered the private station Radio Victoire, which is based in the capital, Lomé, to suspend its two most popular political shows, “Revue de Presse” (Press Review) and “Vice-Versa,” until further notice.
In a letter to Radio Victoire, the HAAC claimed that both programs had aired “impassioned and defamatory statements that discredit Togo’s constitutional and administrative authorities.”
Journalists at Radio Victoire attributed the move to their reports on President Gnassingbé Eyadema’s latest trip to France, where he had lied about Togo’s disastrous human rights situation when asked about it.
The two programs remained off the air at year’s end.
On the orders of the interior minister, authorities seized all copies of that week’s edition of Le Regard, an independent weekly with close ties to the Togolese opposition.
The seizure likely resulted from an article about the December 1991 putsch that overthrew the transitional government of Prime Minister Joseph Koffigoh and put President Gnassingbé Eyadéma back in power.
The article, which originally ran in 1996 and was reprinted in the seized edition, included eyewitness testimony of the events from one of Koffigoh’s guards.
The Interior Ministry provided no justification for the seizure.