The Togolese government attempted to create a veneer of openness and democracy by finally holding twice-postponed legislative elections, while President Gnassingbé Eyadéma and his ruling Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais (Rally of the Togolese People, or RPT) increasingly harassed the private press. Authorities’ routine censorship of private publications, imprisonment of reporters, and attempts to impose new laws with even harsher penalties for press offenses further cemented Togo’s reputation as one of the most repressive places for journalism in West Africa.
Since the January 2000 Press Law empowered the Interior Ministry to seize publications, authorities have been on a rampage. Police confiscated the print runs of several newspapers in 2002 for reasons ranging from publishing “offensive comments” to “undermining the authority of the state.” All of the seizures resulted from articles criticizing the government.
Togolese journalists believe that the seizures were designed not only to censor coverage but also to drive critical publications out of business. Pro-opposition private newspapers survive almost entirely on sales because advertisers fear being associated with publications that criticize the government. Journalists’ wages are also contingent on sales; when publications are seized, reporters often go unpaid. Even pro-government newspapers, which can derive nearly half their revenue from advertising, have trouble making ends meet. As a result, journalists from both sides of the media often accept bribes from officials in exchange for favorable coverage.
The Togolese press remains bitterly polarized between state and pro-government
private media, which invariably support Eyadéma and the RPT, on the one hand, and
the pro-opposition private media, which fiercely criticize the ruling party, on the other. This division is reflected in the organizations that represent journalists, with the
Togolese Private Press Publishers Association comprising journalists from pro-opposition media, and the Private Press Editors Union comprising journalists from pro-government media. Local reporters say the split makes it difficult for journalists to coordinate to defend press freedom.
In February, the Interior Ministry shuttered the private Radio Victoire, claiming that the station’s license had expired. Local sources said the station’s news broadcasts and popular call-in programs, during which listeners frequently criticize the RPT, angered the government. In September, authorities jammed the signal for Radio-France Internationale (RFI) after the station aired comments critical of Eyadéma. In the run-up to October elections, meanwhile, Internet users were unable to access the news Web site letogolais.com, which is run by an editorial staff in Paris with correspondents based in Togo. Press freedom advocates said the site’s independent editorial stance angered officials.
Authorities also chased, arrested, and imprisoned journalists in reprisal for their reporting on ruling-party scandals. Le Scorpion publication director Basile Agboh was jailed in June after his newspaper reported that Lt. Col. Ernest Gnassingbé, a son of President Eyadéma, had threatened Prime Minister Agbeyome Kodjo for not supporting the president. Nouvel Echo publication director Julien Ayi and editor Alphonse Nevamé Klu were sentenced to four months and six months in prison, respectively, and were ordered to pay hefty fines after the paper falsely reported that Eyadéma had illegally amassed a fortune that made him one of the world’s wealthiest people. Newspaper editors regularly went into hiding to avoid arrest after their papers were seized, or when authorities summoned them.
Even senior RPT politicians were not immune from persecution for defying Eyadéma’s rule. Prime Minister Kodjo had to flee the country after publishing a statement online criticizing Eyadéma’s political and economic mismanagement of the country and accusing the president of rights abuses. Local sources said it was RFI’s September interview with the erstwhile prime minister, during which Kodjo accused Eyadéma of wanting to extend his 35-year rule in upcoming presidential elections, that led officials to jam the broadcaster’s signal.
In September, the RPT-dominated Parliament passed an amendment to the Press Code that compounds its already harsh punishments. The measure increases the penalty for “insulting the Head of State” from six months in prison to a “one- to five-year
jail term with no parole and a fine of one to five million CFA francs [US$1,500 to $7,900].” Insulting the National Assembly speaker, the prime minister, or other government officials now draws jail terms of three months to two years. The penalty for defaming c„urts, tribunals, the armed forces, security forces, or other state bodies was increased from three months to three years in jail.
At the end of December, Parliament amended the constitution to allow Eyadéma to run for another term. Eyadéma, Africa’s longest-serving head of state, had earlier promised to respect the constitution, raising hopes that he would step down ahead of 2003 presidential elections. Also in December, authorities arrested Sylvestre Djahlin Nicoué, publication director of the private Citoyen du Courrier, after the paper published an editorial suggesting that the Togolese people would rebel if democratic reforms were not instituted after the 2003 poll. Nicoué was charged with “inciting rebellion” and remained in jail at year’s end.
Interior Ministry agents seized the broadcasting equipment of private station Radio Victoire, forcing it off the air. Management had received a letter from authorities two days earlier stating that the station’s temporary broadcasting license was being canceled, and that it would have to cease broadcasting.
Togolese sources said that the High Authority for Audio-Visual Communications (HAAC), Togo’s official media regulatory body, issues temporary licenses for six months to new stations that wish to begin broadcasting. If, at the end of the six-month period, the station is judged to have complied with Togo’s media laws, then it may be issued a permanent broadcast license. Radio Victoire was issued its temporary license in late August 2001 and began broadcasting at that time.
In November 2001, the HAAC ordered Radio Victoire to cease broadcasting two news programs that it considered “controversial” and “defamatory.” Sources in Lomé say the station was closed because its popular phone-in programs, during which callers criticýzed the ruling Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais (RPT) party, angered authorities. Though RPT cadres complained that the station never featured RPT officials, journalists at the station claimed that they frequently invited RPT members to attend but never received any response.
Lucien Messan, Le Combat du Peuple
Messan, editor-in-chief of the private weekly Le Combat du Peuple, which is based in the capital, Lomé, received death threats from anonymous callers.
Shortly after Le Combat du Peuple ran a series of articles about corruption in the Togolese military in the March 18-22 edition, Messan was summoned to the office of Defense Minister Assani Tidjani. The minister asked Messan to reveal his sources for the stories, but the editor refused.
The March 25-29 edition of Le Combat du Peuple reported that Tidjani had asked Messan to reveal his sources. Shortly after that edition appeared, Messan began receiving death threats.
La Tribune du Peuple
Police seized about 2,000 copies of the independent weekly La Tribune du Peuple from newsstands in the capital, Lomé. Interior Minister Sizing Walla, who ordered the seizure, accused La Tribune du Peuple of publishing “offensive comments” after the paper reported that two Togolese Armed Forces agents had assaulted a mechanic who was suspected of theft.
The following day, Walla summoned La Tribune du Peuple editor Siliadin Kodjo to the ministry. Fearing arrest, Kodjo went into hiding, and Pedro Amuzun, head of the Togolese Media Observatory and editor of the independent weekly Crocodile, went in his place.
Amuzun was taken to President Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s office, along with the mechanic and the two soldiers named in the story. After Eyadéma questioned Amuzun and the mechanic to verify the report, he allowed them to leave. The two soldiers were subsequently dismissed from the army.
On April 10, police again confiscated copies of La Tribune du Peuple. One source in Lomé said the seizure likely resulted from the paper’s reporting on the previous week’s meeting at President Eyadéma’s office.
Police seized most copies of the independent, Lomé-based weekly Motion d’Information at the order of Interior Minister Sizing Walla. The order for the paper’s seizure did not indicate any specific charge or refer to a particular article. However, Toukoula Amicet, the paper’s editor-in-chief, said police told him that the article that prompted the seizure reported that several organizers of Togo’s student union–Union Nationale des Etudiants Togolais (UNET)–had fled Togo for Benin in early February after police pursued them for their anti-government activism.
The article also said that the organizers are planning to ask the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to repatriate them to a country that has no extradition treaty with Togo. (The two principal organizers of UNET have been arrested repeatedly since August 2001.) The report went on to condemn President Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s policies toward students.
Police in Lomé, Togo’s capital, confiscated nearly the entire print run of the private weekly Le Regard from newsstands. Sources said an article in the paper about Prime Minister Agbeyome Kodjo’s recent appearance at a conference in Geneva sponsored by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights prompted the seizure. The article criticized the commission’s decision to halt the inquiry into an Amnesty International report alleging that hundreds of opposition supporters were killed following the 1998 presidential elections in Togo.
Fearing arrest, Le Regard editor Abass Derman Mikaila went into hiding following the seizure of his paper. Agents who confiscated the print run told Mikaila that he had no right to comment on the decisions of the commission, said several sources in Lomé.
Le Combat du Peuple
Copies of three private, Lomé-based weeklies–Le Regard, Le Combat du Peuple, and Motion d’Information–were seized from vendors by police on the order of Interior Minister Sizing Walla.
Le Regard was seized on April 16, while Le Combat du Peuple and Motion d’Information were seized on April 22. The seizures came after the papers reprinted a letter from Dahuku Péré, a member of the Togolese National Assembly for the ruling Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais (RPT) party and former president of the National Assembly, to RPT members. The letter criticized the party’s methods and practices and called for reforms.
Though the letter was sent to a number of media outlets, only these three reprinted it, said sources in Lomé. When interviewed by Agence France-Presse, Walla called the newspapers’ publication of the letter “a provocation.”
Basile Agboh, Le Scorpion
Maurice Atchinou, Le Scorpion
Agboh and Atchinou, publication director and editor-in-chief, respectively, of the independent weekly Le Scorpion, were arrested by police in the capital, Lomé. Their arrests stemmed from a June 3 Le Scorpion article alleging that Lt. Col. Ernest Gnassingbé, a son of President Gnassingbé Eyadéma, had issued death threats against Prime Minister Agbeyomé Kodjo.
On June 6, Agboh was charged with “attacking the honor” of Ernest Gnassingbé. As publication director of Le Scorpion, Agboh was found solely responsible for the paper’s content, and Atchinou was released. Agboh was transferred to Lomé Civilian Prison to await trial.
The newspaper then printed an apology for the story in hopes of spurring Agboh’s release, which came on August 16. Though he is currently free, Agboh could be tried at any time if prosecutors decide to pursue the case.
Police investigated other newspapers that had printed the same story, but no other journalists were arrested, most likely because Le Scorpion was the only publication to mention the president’s son by name.
Julien Ayi, Nouvel Echo
Alphonse Nevamé Klu, Nouvel Echo
Ayi, publication director for the independent daily Nouvel Echo, was arrested and jailed at police headquarters in the capital, Lomé, on charges of “defamation of the president,” and “disturbing public order.” Alphonse Nevamé Klu, the paper’s editor-in-chief, was likewise charged but went into hiding to avoid arrest.
The charges against the two journalists stemmed from an August 2 Nouvel Echo article claiming that President Gnassingbé Eyadéma had amassed a US$4.5 billion fortune, and that he is one of the world’s 497 wealthiest people, according to a list published in the American financial magazine Forbes. The article also alleged that Faure Gnassingbé, a son of the president and a National Assembly member, had control over the fortune and that the riches were “ill-gotten,” the French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.
On August 2, following the article’s publication, the government informed the journalists that it was lodging a complaint with police against the newspaper. A government statement, meanwhile, verified that Eyadéma had not appeared on Forbes‘ list of 497 names. On August 3, the state television channel broadcast the Forbes list, pointing out that no Africans appeared in the document. When contacted by AFP, Interior Minister Sizing Walla said, “The publication of these lies is a way of inciting the population to rebellion.”
Walla also said that when questioned by police before his arrest, Ayi had revealed that Claude Améganvi, a trade unionist and chair of the opposition Workers Party, was the article’s source. Authorities arrested Améganvi, who faced the same charges as Ayi, on August 6. Though Améganvi also edits the trade union newspaper Nyawo, local journalists said his arrest was most likely not related to his journalistic activities.
On September 13, Ayi and Améganvi were convicted and sentenced to four months in prison and a fine of 100,000 CFA francs (US$150) each. Klu was sentenced in absentia to six months in prison and the same fine.
According to the news Web sites Diastode.com and letogolais.com, in early December, an appeals court extended Ayi and Améganvi’s sentences by two months. Nouvel Echo has not appeared since early August.
Siliadin Kodjo, La Tribune du Peuple
Kodjo, managing editor of the independent weekly La Tribune du Peuple, a paper close to Togo’s opposition, was arrested in the afternoon by a group of plainclothes police officers and taken to the central police station in the capital, Lomé.
Kodjo’s arrest stemmed from an article in an early October edition of La Tribune du Peuple that denounced the government’s suppression of a September 28 demonstration organized by the opposition Union of Forces for Change, which had informed the Interior Ministry of the rally in a September 19 letter.
Kodjo was released later that night, after the Togolese Media Observatory, a local media regulatory body, and other media groups intervened on his behalf. Authorities called him in again the next day but did not press charges. Local sources said that other journalists at La Tribune du Peuple began receiving anonymous threatening phone calls after the article ran.
Police seized all copies of the latest edition of the private weekly Motion d’Information from the offices of the newspaper’s printer. The previous three editions of the paper had also been confiscated on orders from the Interior Ministry.
Authorities gave the paper’s staff no explanation for the action, but the seizures followed the appearance of an article in the paper’s October 21 issue that criticized Togo’s late-October legislative elections, saying that results mattered little since the main opposition parties had boycotted the poll.
Local journalists said that Motion d’Information‘s director was summoned to the interior minister’s offices after the article ran. Fearing arrest, the director did not respond to the summons, and authorities began confiscating the newspaper. When the director finally went to the minister’s office in late November, the seizures stopped. Motion d’Information began to appear on newsstands again in late November.
Early in the morning, police confiscated all copies of the private weekly L’Evénement from distribution centers and kiosks on the orders of Interior Minister Sizing Walla. Though the official seizure order did not specify a reason for the action, L’Evénement editor-in-chief Dimas Dzikodo said that the confiscation was linked to an article in that issue by two Ivoirian academics living in the United States that criticized Togolese president Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s mediation of peace talks between the government of neighboring Ivory Coast and rebel groups, which have been waging an armed revolt since September. The authors called for more impartial methods of negotiation to resolve the crisis quickly.
Local sources said that the L’Evénement staff received several threats following the seizure of the edition carrying the contentious article.
Sylvestre Djahlin Nicoué, Courrier du Citoyen