New York, January 7, 2021 –Togolese authorities should permit the L’Indépendant Express newspaper to publish freely, and should ensure that its director, Komlanvi Ketohou, can work without fear of arrest or harassment, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On the night of December 29, armed security forces arrested Ketohou at his home in the capital, Lomé, took him into custody, and accused him of defaming the government, according to media reports as well as the journalist and his lawyer, Wle-Mbanewar Bataka, both of whom spoke to CPJ via phone and messaging app.
On January 2, police released the journalist, also known as Carlos Ketohou, on the condition that he be available to authorities “at any time,” he told CPJ. Ketohou and Bataka said that they were not aware of any formal complaint sparking his arrest.
On January 4, the Broadcast and Communications High Authority (HAAC), the country’s media regulator, ordered L’Indépendant Express to cease operations, including its print and online publications, according to a copy of the decision, Ketohou, and media reports.
Today, Ketohou received a summons to appear before the Court of First Instance of First Class of Lomé on January 11 in connection with the regulator’s decision, according to media reports, Ketohou, and a copy of the summons reviewed by CPJ.
“Togolese authorities’ detention of journalist Carlos Ketohou and the forced closure of his newspaper are flagrant violations of press freedom in the country,” said Muthoki Mumo, CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative, in Nairobi. “Authorities should halt their intimidation of the press, and permit Ketohou to work without fear and L’Indépendant Express to work freely.”
The regulator’s decision alleges that a December 29 report by L’Indépendant Express defamed members of the government, and accused Ketohou of failing to provide adequate proof for the paper’s reporting. The decision said that the L’Indépendant Express did not respect “professional rules” under Sections 159 and 160 of Togo’s press code, which relate to insulting government officials and defamation.
The December 29 report by L’Indépendant Express, a copy of which CPJ reviewed, was titled “End-of-year scoop: Two women ministers arrested for theft of golden spoons.” The report did not identify any government official by name.
Ketohou said that security agents arrived at his home in the middle of the night after that article was published, and arrested him in front of his family, saying it left his children “traumatized.” During his detention, agents repeatedly questioned him about the article and his sources, he said. Interrogators also seized his phone and forced him to give up the password for his Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and three email accounts, Ketohou told CPJ.
Ketohou was initially detained at the local gendarmerie anti-gang brigade, and on the night of December 31 was moved to the gendarmerie’s Central Service of Research and Criminal Investigations (SRCIC), he said. He told CPJ that authorities had not returned his phone as of today.
Following the Broadcast and Communications High Authority’s January 4 suspension order, L’Indépendant Express is prohibited from publishing stories pending a court decision on the matter, according to Ketohou, media reports, and the copy of the regulator decision reviewed by CPJ.
If the court sides with the regulator, it could order the paper’s operating permits to be retracted, forcing it to shut down, according to those sources. Ketohou told CPJ that L’Indépendant Express was effectively closed while he awaited a court’s decision.
Offenses relating to “media professionals and press companies carrying out written press, audiovisual press and online press activities” are handled under Togo’s press code, rather than its penal code, according a government report from January 2020 and CPJ’s review of the press code.
Violations of Section 159 are punishable with fines of up to five million West African francs ($9,380), and violations of Section 160 carry fines of up to three million francs ($5,628) according to the press code.
CPJ called Togolese public prosecutor Blaise Essolizam Poyodi, Broadcast and Communications High Authority President Willybrond Télou Pitalounani, and Badibassa Babaka, an official with the regulator, for comment, but they did not answer.
Ketohou told CPJ that since his arrest, his wife had received threatening calls from someone saying, “We will come back, you will hear from us,” and asking where she and Ketohou could be found. He said he believed the calls came from the same security forces who had arrested him.
CPJ called that phone number, but no one answered.
Editor’s note: The date of publication has been updated in the first paragraph.