With 37 years in power, Togolese president Gnassingbé Eyadéma is Africa’s longest-serving head of state. Even after multiparty elections were introduced in 1993, Eyadéma and his ruling Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais have dominated politics and muzzled opposition voices in this West African nation.
However, the Eyadéma regime surprised the international community in April by pledging 22 democratization reforms in a bid to get the European Union to lift decade-old economic sanctions. The government promised to ease restrictions on the press and launch broad political reforms, such as amendments to the electoral code.
Togolese journalists have cautiously welcomed these proposals, but many remain deeply skeptical given Eyadéma’s record. In 2003, Eyadéma broke his pledge not to run again for office and took the June presidential election with 57 percent of the vote amid fraud allegations. The government’s brutal repression of the media earned Togo a place on CPJ’s 2003 list of the “World’s Worst Places to Be a Journalist.”
Human rights organizations labeled the Press Code that Togo passed in 2000 as one of the worst in Africa. It allowed for sentences of up to five years in prison, 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. In the past, officials have used the code’s provisions to harass and jail journalists, and to seize thousands of copies of private publications from printers. In the run-up to the 2003 elections, the Eyadéma regime also shuttered media outlets, blocked news Web sites, and jammed the frequency of Radio France Internationale.
In a welcome shift, the Togolese Parliament unanimously passed Press Code amendments in August removing criminal penalties for some press offenses. The amendments allow for stiff fines rather than imprisonment for publishing false news and defamation offenses, including the defamation of public figures and institutions.
The changes also ban the Interior Ministry from seizing and closing newspapers without judicial oversight, although a judge could still order copies of a publication destroyed.
Local journalists welcomed the amendments, and some told CPJ that coverage of political events in the Togolese press improved after they were passed; some Web sites that were regularly blocked inside Togo are now accessible.
But the future of press freedom in Togo depends heavily on the government’s willingness to carry out further reforms. Several press offenses are still punishable by up to one year in prison, including incitement to commit crime, theft, destruction of public or private property, or “crimes against the internal or external security of the State”; incitement to ethnic and/or racial hatred; and incitement of the army or security forces to rebellion.
Journalists note that the articles in the code that describe criminal press offenses are vague and could be used to crack down on a variety of antigovernment opinions. Local journalists also say that the fines assigned to the newly decriminalized offenses, which range up to 5 million CFA francs (about US$9,300), are exorbitant by Togolese standards and could bankrupt local publications.
Following the amendments to the Press Code, Togolese authorities cautioned local journalists against taking advantage of their new freedom. In October, Communications Minister Pitang Tchalla warned that the new code was not a “license to insult the authorities” and told journalists that their propensity toward “insult and provocation” suggested that they did not support the resumption of EU aid, according to the government’s official Web site.
Press freedom advocates also say that the government has long used a variety of “soft” tactics to control the media. Low salaries for journalists and low revenue from private advertising leave reporters and owners vulnerable to bribes from government officials and politicians; chronic financial problems have also fostered what is known locally as the “combat press,” publications that are financed to attack political enemies.
In April, the government pledged to guarantee the independence of Togo’s official media regulatory body (known by its French acronym, HAAC), and to guarantee all political parties equal access to public media. Before the 2003 presidential elections, the ruling party promised to open the state media to opposition parties. However, the promise came with a catch: The HAAC required all political messages to be vetted before being aired by the state broadcasters or appearing in Togo Presse, the state newspaper and Togo’s only daily. Opposition candidates complained that their messages were censored.
In December, the HAAC warned that it would shutter newspapers that did not employ enough journalists with government press cards. The Press Code requires at least one-third of each newspaper’s permanent staff to be accredited. Some local journalists believed that the HAAC’s statement was linked to reports in the private press about sensitive issues, such as Parliament’s reluctance to consider opposition suggestions for a new electoral code and a deadly stampede during a pro-government march in November.