August 27, 2002
President Gnassingbé Eyadéma
C/o Embassy of the Togolese Republic
2208 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington D.C. 20008
Via facsimile: (202) 232-3190
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is gravely concerned that Togo continues its slide toward becoming West Africa’s worst press freedom abuser. We are particularly alarmed at recently proposed legislation to amend Togo’s already repressive press laws.
The bill, put forward a week ago by your Cabinet, proposes heavy prison sentences for “defaming or insulting” you, state institutions, courts, the armed forces, and public administration bodies.
The proposed amendment would increase the penalty for “insulting the Head of State” from the current one to six months imprisonment to a “one to five-year jail term with no parole and a fine of one to five million CFA francs” (US$1,480 to US$7,400).
In addition, the bill introduces penalties ranging from three months to two years for “insulting the National Assembly speaker, the prime minister, parliamentarians, government members, and constitutional institutions.”
Further penalties are a three-year jail term for defamation of “courts, tribunals, the armed forces, security forces, constituent bodies, and the public administration.” Current law provides for a three-month jail term.
CPJ has written to your Excellency on two different occasions to voice alarm about press freedom violations in Togo and to register our opposition to the laws that govern the media in your country. In May 2000, we expressed concern that the new harsh press laws would greatly inhibit the flow of information in Togo, a fear that was realized soon after the laws went into effect.
Over the past two years, CPJ has documented numerous instances of government officials seizing newspaper print runs, harassing and jailing journalists, and shuttering media outlets whose coverage displeased your government. This crackdown has taken place amid widespread allegations of human rights abuses by Your Excellency’s regime.
In the latest case, Basile Agboh, publication director of the independent Lomé-based weekly Le Scorpion, was arrested on June 5. Agboh was charged with “attacking the honor” of your son Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Gnassingbé in an article in the June 3 edition of the paper, which alleged that your son had issued death threats to Prime Minister Agbeyomé Kodjo. Agboh was transferred to Lomé civilian prison to await trial. Though the newspaper has printed an apology for the story, Agboh remained in prison until August 16 when he was conditionally released.
These and other incidents documented by CPJ demonstrate that Togo has one of the most repressive climates for journalists in Africa. Press Code provisions that allow authorities to censor publications and broadcasts containing “offensive” or “controversial” content clearly violate the right of press freedom, which is specifically guaranteed by Togo’s constitution.
CPJ fears that the proposed amendments will further hamper Togolese journalists’ ability to report the news at a time when the nation is going through major social unrest with far-reaching consequences for its economic development and political future.
We therefore urge you to do everything within your power to repeal the Press Code of 2000, to stop interfering with the vital work of independent news organizations, and to allow journalists in Togo to practice their profession without fear of criminal prosecution or outrageous fines.
Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your reply.