CPJ expresses concern about HAAC’s actions

August 31, 2007

Phillipe Evegno
High Authority for Audiovisual and Communication
Lomé, Togo
B.P. 8697

Via fax: +228-250-1678

Dear Mr. Evegno,

We are concerned by a growing trend by the High Authority for Audiovisual and Communication (HAAC) to suspend media outlets in Togo, citing violations to journalist ethics as a basis for suppression. Two newspapers, The Republic Courier and The Trumpet, are currently suspended for articles deemed unprofessional and against journalistic ethics by your institution.

The Republic Courier has been suspended by the HAAC since June and will remain so until September 11, for the publication of two articles in the May 14 issue. The first article–“HAAC, Isn’t That a Right to Respond?”–claimed the HAAC is not aware of the difference between printing a correction and a “right to respond.” The second article, “The Black Dossier of M. Kagbara Bassabi of PDP,” accused a current opposition party member, Kagbara Bassabi of the Panafrican Democratic Party (PDP), of past corruption. Kagbara Bassabi lodged a formal complaint citing defamation and non-verification of facts before publication in article 84 in the Press and Communication Code.

Facing a longer suspension, The Trumpet will remain suspended until October 11 because of a series of articles critical of the University of Lomé. The series criticized the academic staff of the university’s history and archaeology departments, accusing the department heads of authoritarianism and maintaining poor academic standards. According to your office, the editor refused to write a correction as requested.

Another weekly independent newspaper, The Parrot, recommenced publication August 13 after being suspended by your institution for two months. The paper was suspended for its article on a member of opposition group Union des Forces de Changement (UFC) in the April 25 issue, “What Can UFC Member Bleoussi Komlan Fernand Expect Back in Togo?” Citing Article 82 of the Press and Communication Code, HAAC suspected the article was a publication bought by Bleoussi Komlan to assist him in acquiring a residence permit abroad. According your office, individuals seeking residency permits abroad often pay newspapers to cover their case in order to use the documented evidence for foreign residency applications.

While the HAAC plays a role in supporting professional standards in Togo’s journalism, the current long-term suspensions of these two newspapersmay have an adverse affect on their future existence. According to the Union of Independent Journalists in Togo, blocking crucial revenues with long suspensions can effectively shut down independent newspapers that cannot financially survive such an interruption.
Moreover, according to the republic’s Press and Communication Code, a publication can only be suspended through a court order. The current suspension of these publications should therefore be terminated as legally groundless.
Direct interference in editorial decisions by the HAAC undermines the independence of media in Togo. We urge you to lift these suspensions promptly and unconditionally in order to maintain the country’s current efforts in promoting democracy and free expression.

The current suspensions reflect a disturbing trend in censorship of both print and broadcast media within the country since the beginning of this year. In March, the HAAC temporarily banned journalist and media activist Daniel Lawson-Drackey over a commentary on private radio Nana FM that was critical of a government minister. In January, private Radio Victoire was pulled off the air for 15 days and its French analyst indefinitely banned from broadcasting in response to critical coverage of the Togolese football association.

A similar crackdown on private broadcast media took place on February 11, 2005, when eight radio stations and two television stations were closed down in the run-up to the April 5, 2005, elections. With upcoming parliamentary elections at an as-yet unspecified date expected in Togo, the suppression of the independent press sets a dangerous precedent in a country previously lauded for its progressive stance toward the media after the August 2004 amendment to the Press and Communication Code, which decriminalized libel and defamation for journalists.

We urge you to maintain that spirit of press freedom within your country and immediately repeal the heavy suspensions placed against The Republic Courier and The Trumpet newspapers.

Joel Simon
Executive Director