TOGO The death of President Gnassingbé Eyadema on February 5 gave local journalists hope that a new era of press freedom would follow years of repression. Instead, Eyadéma’s Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais (RPT) held on to power, resorting to censorship, harassment, and intimidation of the media as the army suspended the constitution and named the president’s son, Faure Gnassingbé, head of state.
Local FM broadcasts of Radio France Internationale (RFI), an influential news source in Togo, were cut for several days after Communications Minister Pitang Tchalla criticized foreign media coverage of the succession and accused RFI of conducting “a campaign of disinformation and destabilization.” Officials also denied a visa to a France-based RFI reporter who tried to enter the country from neighboring Benin.
Amid pro-opposition protests and growing unrest in the capital, Lomé, authorities censored radio stations that aired critical debates and interviews about the turmoil. On February 10, a Togolese Armed Forces spokesman told media owners at a meeting convened by the official High Audiovisual and Communications Authority (known by its French acronym, HAAC) that private broadcasters were “playing a very dangerous game.” He warned them that the army was “following all the stations very closely.” The spokesman singled out the popular Lomé-based independent stations Nana FM, Radio Nostalgie, and Kanal FM, along with the Catholic station Radio Maria.
From February 11 to 14, security forces visited the offices of seven private broadcasters in Lomé, including Nana FM, Kanal FM, and Radio Nostalgie, and ordered them off the air, citing unpaid broadcasting fees. A Lomé court later issued a one-month suspension of several of the same stations after the HAAC accused them of inciting “civil disobedience” and “racial hatred.” Riot police clashed with demonstrators trying to prevent the stations’ closure, according to the Panafrican News Agency.
All of the stations were allowed back on the air by late February, as Togolese authorities bowed to international pressure and scheduled presidential elections for April 24. However, repression of the press resumed amid pre-election violence. In mid-April, the HAAC banned private broadcasters from “organizing special programs or debates featuring the candidates or their representatives,” and from “carrying out any media coverage” of the campaigns. Only days before the vote, the HAAC suspended Kanal FM again, calling a broadcast editorial “tendentious, defamatory and insulting.” The piece had accused members of the ruling party of widespread human rights abuses, called the HAAC a tool of the ruling party, and denounced the ban on campaign coverage.
The day after the election, the HAAC suspended Radio Maria and Radio Nostalgie for one month for mistakenly reporting that the government had imposed a curfew in the capital, as opposition supporters refused to accept official results declaring Faure Gnassingbé the winner. Rioting spread throughout the country. Nana FM shut down temporarily for fear of being attacked. Mobs attacked radio stations, both pro-government and pro-opposition, in several small towns. Local journalists told CPJ that many phone lines were cut, making it difficult to report events to the outside world.
Several government ministers and state-owned media blamed foreign journalists for the post-election violence. “It is you who have ignited the fire,” Foreign Minister Kokou Tozoun told international correspondents at a press conference, according to The Associated Press. “It is you who are at the origin of the massacre.” Some of these journalists, who included seasoned war correspondents, told CPJ that the comments had endangered their safety. Some said they scaled back their activity.
Shortly after the election, RFI’s FM broadcasts were again cut, this time to “preserve national cohesion,” according to the communications minister. RFI protested the censorship and introduced new shortwave frequencies. The FM broadcasts remained off the air until November, when they were restored on the first day of an international media summit organized by the International Union of the Francophone Press. Hervé Bourges, the union’s president and a former president of RFI, raised the issue with Togolese authorities before the summit opened, he told the United Nations’ IRIN news service.
A U.N. report in September noted that during the election HAAC and RPT officials threatened journalists and ordered some broadcast media owners to suspend program hosts judged overly critical of the government. The report criticized the HAAC for acting as a government censor instead of in its official role as a media regulator.
Relations between the government and the private press eased after July as the violence tapered off, although local journalists continued to censor themselves, according to CPJ sources. In August, newly appointed Communications Minister Kokou Tozoun, who was previously foreign minister, made a conciliatory tour of private broadcasters around the country. The minister also agreed to introduce financial aid for the private press in the 2006 budget, including tax relief on media supplies and lower communications costs, following proposals by local journalists’ associations. Some local journalists expressed fears, however, that authorities would use aid as a tool to influence coverage.
In September, the government approved a new set of HAAC members, and created a position for a representative of the private press in an attempt to fulfill the previous government’s 2004 promise to guarantee the agency’s independence. This pledge was part of an extensive democratization plan aimed at regaining European Union aid, which was suspended in 1993 in response to Eyadéma’s dismal human rights record. The EU announced some limited financial assistance for development and elections-related projects in 2005.
Some local media organizations never recovered from the year’s turmoil. Privately owned Radio Lumière in the coastal town of Aného was shuttered by police in February after it broadcast critical debates as well as opposition statements calling for protests. It re-opened only to be raided and torched by security forces following the election.