CPJ condemns journalist’s imprisonment

New York, March 22, 2004—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemns the imprisonment of Jean-Baptiste Hounkonnou, publication director of the independent daily Le Nouvel Essor, which is based in Parakou, a city in the eastern central region of Benin.

Honkounnou was arrested and imprisoned following a March 16 court conviction on charges of criminal defamation. The charges stem from a December 2003 Le Nouvel Essor article that alleged that a local resident had committed adultery. In addition to receiving six months in prison, Hounkonnou was sentenced to pay 600,000 CFA francs (US$1,120) in damages and a 200,000 CFA franc (US$375) fine, local journalists said.

“As an organization of journalists dedicated to defending our colleagues worldwide, we believe that journalists should never be jailed for their work,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “Civil remedies provide adequate redress for press offenses such as these.”

The Béninois government’s general tolerance for criticism, and the country’s vibrant and growing media have often set a good press freedom example for other countries in West Africa. However, local journalists say that criminal statutes are unduly harsh and have a chilling effect on media freedom.

According to CPJ records, this is the first time a journalist in Bénin has been imprisoned following a conviction on a press offense since President Mathieu Kérékou was returned to office in 1996.

“We urge President Kérékou to work toward removing from the books statutes that criminalize press offenses and do everything within his power to see that Jean-Baptiste Hounkonnou is immediately released from prison,” added Cooper.