Benin’s parliament should expunge criminal defamation from the media bill

Abuja, Nigeria, December 23, 2014–Benin Republic’s parliament is set to vote on a media bill that threatens to jail journalists for insulting the president or other government officials, according to news reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on parliament to scrap any measures in the bill that could send journalists to prison for doing their jobs.

“We urge parliament to reconsider and amend all provisions in the bill that potentially criminalize the work of journalists,” said Peter Nkanga, CPJ’s West Africa Representative. “Criminal defamation and insult laws have no place in a democratic society.”

The government-authored bill, called the Information and Communication Code, includes about a dozen articles that impose varying prison terms of up to three years for acts deemed defamatory, offensive, or insulting to a public figure, including through words, gestures or images. Publicly insulting Benin’s president is punishable with a maximum six months’ imprisonment and/or a fine of a 10 million CFA francs (about US$18,700).

Parliament did not convene on the bill on December 22, as originally scheduled, Franck Kpocheme, president of the Union of Media Professionals of Benin, told CPJ. The bill can be voted on until parliamentary session ends in early 2015.

The criminal provisions are part of a wide-ranging media bill submitted to parliament in May 2014.

In November, CPJ, along with the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), the West African Journalists Association (WAJA), and the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ), held meetings in Benin with members of parliament, the executive, judiciary, civil society, and the media calling for the repeal of criminal defamation in the country.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has repeatedly called for criminal defamation and insult laws to be scrapped across Africa. The Pan African Parliament also launched a campaign supporting press freedom in Africa, according to media reports. On December 5, the African Court on Human and People’s Rights ruled in the case of journalist Lohé Issa Konaté v. Burkina Faso that imprisonment for defamation violates the right to freedom of expression, according to media reports.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This alert has been modified to include the names of the press freedom groups with whom CPJ held meetings in Benin.