For first time since ’96, journalists imprisoned for their work

New York, August 19, 2004—At least four Beninese reporters face criminal defamation charges and two of them have already spent time in prison this year—the first journalists to be imprisoned for their work since 1996 in the West African nation.

The defendants include Patrick Adjamonsi, publication director of the private daily L’Aurore, who was released today after spending six days in prison. Adjamonsi, whose original sentence was overturned, faces a new trial in the fall.

The charges against Adjamonsi stem from an article he wrote for L’Aurore in November 2003, which criticized the distribution of government subsidies for the private press by Benin’s communications authority La Haute Autorité de l’Audiovisuel et de la Communication (HAAC). According to local sources, the article alleged the subsidies were not properly distributed, and suggested their distribution could have been influenced by corruption.

In February, 2004, two administrative employees of the HAAC, Amélie Amoussou and Noël Sohouénou, pressed defamation charges against Adjamonsi. On June 8, Adjamonsi was sentenced to six months in prison and a symbolic fine of one CFA franc (less than one U.S. cent). According to local sources, Adjamonsi was not present at his trial and had not hired a lawyer, so the conviction and sentencing took place in absentia.

On August 13, Adjamonsi was arrested and imprisoned in Cotonou, Benin’s largest city. A lawyer subsequently hired by the journalist successfully challenged the sentence on procedural grounds. The court ordered a retrial, for which a hearing has been scheduled on October 19.

Amoussou and Sohouénou also pressed charges against two other journalists, stemming from an article in the private daily La Pyramide on the distribution of press subsidies. John Akintola, the author, and Christophe Hodonou, publication director of La Pyramide, were sentenced July 20 in absentia to six months in prison and a fine of one CFA franc. Their sentences were also overturned on procedural grounds, and the warrant for their arrest was rescinded today. They also face retrial, with the first hearing on October 19.

Jean-Baptiste Hounkonnou, publication director for the independent daily Le Nouvel Essor, continues to face criminal defamation charges for an article published in December 2003. Hounkonnou was imprisoned on March 16 after he received a six-month prison sentence for defamation, but was granted a provisional release in May after he appealed. His case is ongoing and he could face additional imprisonment if his appeal is rejected. (See CPJ’s March 22 alert and May 3 alert.)

“It is troubling that two journalists have been imprisoned on defamation charges so far this year, the first journalists to be imprisoned for their work in Benin since 1996,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “Benin should live up to its reputation for upholding press freedom by removing criminal penalties for press offenses.”