Media group journalists in Benin sentenced to prison

New York, February 21, 2007–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns criminal convictions handed down on Friday in Benin against three journalists and an executive of private Golfe media group over a February 2005 story alleging governmental corruption.

A court in the capital Cotonou sentenced Golfe media group President Ismael Soumano, former Golfe FM Director Euloge Aïdasso, former Director Joel Ahofojji and former Golfe TV Editorial Chronicler Charbel Aïhou to six months in prison and heavy damages and fines on criminal defamation charges, according to local journalists. The charges stem from a story alleging that the sacking of former Housing Minister Luc Gnacadja by then-President Mathieu Kérékou was linked to his mismanagement of a public housing project, according to the same sources. The journalists are free pending an appeal, according to defense lawyer Magloire Yansunnu.

“Sending journalists to jail for their reporting is outrageous,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on the appeals court to overturn their criminal convictions and urge authorities to decriminalize defamation.”

The sentences required each defendant to pay 5 million CFA francs (US$10,000) in damages to the plaintiff, Yansunnu told CPJ. The court also imposed fines of $500,000 CFA francs (US$1,000) plus a penalty of 100,000 CFA francs (US$200) per day for the non-publication of the final outcome of the case, according to him.

“We were not notified of Friday’s hearing and the judge handed the maximum sentence by default while we were at work,” Aïhou, now the director of Golfe TV, told CPJ.

Golfe FM was the first private radio station established in Benin after the passing of a law that liberalized broadcasting in 1997. A draft law to ban prison sentences for press offenses is scheduled for discussion before Benin’s parliament.