Togo bans paper over story on president’s half-brother

New York, August 26, 2010–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns Wednesday’s ruling by a criminal court judge in Togo to indefinitely ban the distribution of a Benin newspaper that had raised questions about the alleged involvement of a half-brother of President Faure Gnassingbé in drug trafficking.

The ban on Tribune d’Afrique, a private bimonthly based in Benin that has a bureau in the Togolese capital of Lomé, was based on charges of publishing false news and defamation under the 1998 press law and the penal code. The suit was filed by Mey Gnassingbé, a presidential adviser, defense lawyer Darius Atsoo told CPJ.

The judge also ordered the newspaper to pay 60 million CFA francs (US$113,000) to Gnassingbé and slapped Togo-based Editor Aurel Kedoté, reporter Cudjoe Amekudzi and Chief Executive Officer Marlène de la Bardonnie with fines of 2 million CFA francs (US$3,800) each, Atsoo said. The defense would appeal the verdict Atsoo said, adding that the newspaper did not have a lawyer during the trial and was not able to present a defense.

“We condemn this harsh ruling against Tribune d’Afrique as an act of censorship on critical reporting,” said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. “We call on the appeals court to annul the verdict of the lower court.”

Gnassingbé sued the newspaper in May after it published the first of a three-part investigative series, titled “The white powder darkening presidential palaces: Drug trafficking at the top of the state. Mey Gnassingbé fingered,” according to the paper’s publisher, Max Carmel. Gnassingbé denied the allegations in a May interview with the paper.

Launched in 2005, Tribune d’Afrique is sold and distributed in seven West African countries, including Togo, where it had it highest circulation, according to Carmel. The paper’s critical coverage of the Togolese government has drawn state harassment, including threats from officials and the government-controlled media regulatory authority HAAC, and loss of government advertising revenue.