Attacks on the Press 2003: Togo

With a press code that imposes sentences of up to five years in prison and a hefty fine for “insulting the Head of State,” and as much as three years in jail for defaming the courts or the armed forces, Togo earned a spot on CPJ’s list of the “World’s Worst Places to Be a Journalist” in 2003.

During the last three years, several journalists have been imprisoned for press offenses, while others have gone into hiding to avoid arrest. On the orders of the Interior Ministry, police have confiscated thousands of copies of private publications from printing facilities. Authorities have closed down media outlets, blocked news Web sites, and jammed the frequencies of broadcasters deemed critical of President Gnassingbé Eyadéma or his ruling Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais (RPT). In response to this deterioration in press freedom conditions, in late August 2003, CPJ conducted a research mission in Lomé, Togo’s capital.

The most controversial story of 2003 was the June 1 presidential election. In 1999, Eyadéma announced that he would abide by the constitutional limit of two terms in office and not run again. In December 2002, however, the RPT-dominated legislature amended the constitution to allow for an indefinite number of terms in office. To no one’s surprise, Eyadéma, Africa’s longest-serving head of state, won the presidential election with 57 percent of the vote amid allegations of fraud.

In the run-up to the poll, Togolese authorities clamped down on news organizations that questioned the government’s commitment to democracy. In late December 2002, Le Courrier du Citoyen Publication Director Sylvestre Nicoué was charged with “inciting rebellion” after his paper ran an editorial suggesting that the Togolese people would rebel if democratic reforms were not instituted after the 2003 election. Nicoué spent more than four months in prison without trial before being released on May 7.

In late February, the High Authority for Audiovisual Communications (HAAC), Togo’s official media regulatory body, ordered the independent Tropik FM closed after the radio station aired a political debate during which callers questioned Eyadéma’s apparent intention to run for a third term. The station was allowed to reopen days later after negotiations with HAAC. Authorities also briefly closed Nana FM, an independent radio station located in the heart of Lomé’s Grand Marché, after it aired a debate between youth groups on RPT governance and the possibility of Eyadéma running for re-election. HAAC officials claimed the closure was prompted by a property dispute, and Nana FM later moved its offices out of the market area.

In late March, the Communications Ministry banned correspondents from the BBC, Radio France Internationale (RFI), Reuters, and Agence France-Presse (AFP) from working in the country after the international press failed to cover a government-sponsored seminar on African elections. The ban was lifted after a few days.

Though the government touted media access to the election campaigns, Togolese journalists complained of discrimination in the campaign accreditation process. Communications Minister Pitang Tchalla claimed that nearly 80 journalists working for media from various countries were allowed to cover the elections, but few journalists working for the Togolese private media were given accreditation, and those who were hailed from pro-RPT media outlets, local sources said.

HAAC officials claimed that all journalists could get accreditation, and that the paucity of coverage in the private media was because most journalists could not afford to cover the campaigns outside Lomé. Tchalla, however, later said that HAAC refused to accredit journalists who applied late or who had a reputation for biased coverage of Togolese politics. The latter was used as a basis for rejecting the accreditation of RFI correspondent Karine Frenk, whom Tchalla accused of unbalanced reporting and of harboring opposition sympathies. RFI declined to send a correspondent in Frenk’s place. Tchalla likewise accused the French daily Le Monde and AFP of lacking objectivity in their coverage of the election and of glorifying veteran opposition leader Gilchrist Olympio, a son of Togo’s first president whose presidential aspirations have been thwarted.

Though all political candidates were allotted space in the state media–the only media to have a countrywide reach–journalists said state media coverage heavily favored Eyadéma by giving time to other RPT politicians as “official personalities” who were campaigning on the president’s behalf. Opposition candidates also complained that their broadcast messages were being censored. The HAAC required all political messages to receive its approval before they aired on the state broadcasters or appeared in Togo Presse, the state newspaper and Togo’s only daily.

The media were not given access to ballot-counting centers and were not allowed to broadcast election results before they were announced by the official electoral commission. Togolese journalists said that this prevented them from exposing possible ballot tampering and ensuring a transparent election.

By far the most alarming attack on press freedom occurred in mid-June, when L’Evénement Editor-in-Chief Dimas Dzikodo and Publication Director Philip Evégno and Nouvel Echo reporter Jean de Dieu Kpakpabia were arrested and eventually charged with “attempting to publish false information.” Authorities accused the three of trying to send photographs of alleged election disturbances to Web sites abroad. The charge itself was unprecedented and is not in the country’s press code. All three were held for more than a month, and several sources said that Dzikodo and Kpakpabia were tortured while in custody. Only Dzikodo was convicted and fined 500,000 CFA francs (US$865). The government Web site hailed the “lenient” sentence, saying it demonstrated the judiciary’s independence.

Local journalists say the biggest obstacle to press freedom in Togo is economic. The media are polarized between pro-RPT and pro-opposition publications. Because businesses are reluctant to advertise in private media that are critical of the ruling regime, newspapers rely on sales to survive and journalists often go unpaid. This leaves reporters open to bribes and has fostered what is known locally as the “combat press”–publications that are financed with the exclusive aim of attacking political enemies.

Authorities often criticize private journalists’ lack of professionalism, but journalists complain of government intolerance, refusal to grant access to ministers and official information, and the government’s reluctance to subsidize media development. While the independent journalists’ resource center Maison du Journalisme, in Lomé, frequently holds seminars sponsored by foreign embassies, the country’s journalism school has been closed for years.

On July 23, journalists created a new association named the Togolese Council of Private Press Publishers (CTEP). While previously established unions comprise publishers from either the pro-RPT or pro-opposition newspapers exclusively, CTEP includes publishers from both sides. Independent Togolese sources doubt the motives behind the creation of CTEP, saying they believe that the government is subsidizing the union in return for more favorable coverage from its members. Shortly after CTEP’s inauguration, four journalists from pro-RPT publications who were excluded from CTEP membership were arrested for vandalizing the offices of the CTEP vice president. They were released the next day without charge.

Since the introduction of the press code amendment in September 2002, the number of journalists prosecuted and newspapers seized has actually dropped. Authorities attribute this fact to government generosity with press subsidies and counseling on professionalism. Journalists, however, say it is due to increased self-censorship and the government’s growing preference to pay off journalists rather than arrest them. Local sources also said it is due to the government’s desire to project a better image internationally to persuade the European Union to lift economic sanctions that have been in place for a decade.