New York, February 26, 2021 — Togolese authorities should immediately reverse the suspension of the L’Alternative newspaper and ensure journalists in the country can work free of harassment and intimidation, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On February 5, the Broadcast and Communications High Authority (HAAC), Togo’s media regulator, suspended the privately owned L’Alternative for four months, according to a copy of the suspension order reviewed by CPJ.
The newspaper has not printed since, nor continued updating its website, according to L’Alternative publication director Ferdinand Mensah Ayité, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app. Ayité told CPJ he has also faced legal harassment in recent months.
“The persistent harassment and attempts to intimidate journalist Ferdinand Ayité and the L’Alternative newspaper sends a signal heard around the world that authorities in Togo will not permit the press to work freely,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator. “Togo should prioritize the protection of investigative journalism, not seek to smother it.”
The HAAC suspension order said that a February 2 report in the paper violated professional and ethical standards, and referenced a February 3 complaint by Koffi Tsolenyanu, Togo’s Minister of Urbanism, Housing, and Land Reform, alleging that the story contained “false information, offense, and defamation.”
The order alleged that the newspaper had not sufficiently attempted to contact Tsolenyanu before publication, and provided inadequate proof for its claims. The article, which CPJ reviewed, alleged that Tsolenyanu was involved in fraud connected to the estate of a deceased businessman.
On February 8, Isidore Kouwonou, L’Alternative’s editor-in-chief, released a statement, which CPJ reviewed, defending the paper’s efforts to contact Tsolenyanu before publication and denying that the paper had inadequate evidence.
L’Alternative has appealed the suspension to the Administrative Chamber of the Supreme Court, but a hearing date has not been set, according to an appeal document review by CPJ as well as Ayité and Kouwonou, who also spoke to CPJ via messaging app.
On February 8, a member of the HAAC, Zeus Komi Aziadouvo, wrote a letter to the president of the regulator, which CPJ reviewed and which was covered by local media. In the letter, Aziadouvo wrote that, “in taking this [suspension] decision, we simply did the will of Mr. Koffi TSOLENYANU.”
Previously, on November 4, 2020, a court in Lomé, Togo’s capital, ruled against Ayité and L’Alternative as a corporate entity following a defamation complaint filed by Fabrice Affatsawo Adjakly, finance director of the Committee for Monitoring Fluctuations in the Price of Petroleum Products, a government regulatory body, according to media reports and a copy of the court’s decision reviewed by CPJ.
The complaint, which CPJ reviewed, requested L’Alternative and Ayité be penalized under Togo’s press code, which governs media-related offenses.
The court ordered Ayité and the newspaper to each pay 2 million West African francs (US $3,703) in damages to Adjakly, whom the newspaper had accused of embezzlement in a June 2020 report, according to those sources.
Ayité and L’Alternative filed an appeal the same day as that ruling; the Lomé Court of Appeal held a hearing on the case on February 11 without Ayité’s knowledge, and the next court date was scheduled for March 11, according to a copy of the appeal filing reviewed by CPJ and media reports.
Separately, on January 9, Ayité posted on Facebook that he was summoned by Togo’s Central Research and Criminal Investigation Services (SCRIC), but wrote that the summons was withdrawn later that evening; he wrote that he believed it may have been related to his Facebook posts about a local traffic accident.
The Togolese Press Patronage (PPT), a local association of media owners, condemned the intimidation of Ayité and L’Alternative in January and February 2021 statements reviewed by CPJ and published by local media. In October 2020, 38 members of the European Parliament signed a letter, which CPJ reviewed, expressing their “deepest concerns” over the “judicial harassment” faced by Ayité and L’Alternative.
Reached by phone, Willybrond Télou Pitalounani, the president of the Broadcast and Communications High Authority, told CPJ that the HAAC would continue to oppose L’Alternative’s appeals of its suspension and awaited the court’s decision.
CPJ called Tsolenyanu, but he did not answer; calls to Adjakly did not connect.
In an unrelated case, on January 26, the Broadcast and Communications High Authority informed Komlanvi Ketohou, also known as Carlos Ketohou, that a court had approved the withdrawal of the operating permits for his newspaper, L’Indépendant Express, according to Ketohou, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app, and a copy of the regulator’s notice that CPJ reviewed.
Ketohou was arrested on December 29, 2020, detained until January 2, and L’Indépendant Express was barred from publishing pending the court’s decision, as CPJ documented at the time.
Ketohou told CPJ that he had appealed both the HAAC and court’s decisions. Pitalounani told CPJ that the possible reinstallation of L’Indépendant Express’s operating permits depended on the court.