New York, December 13, 2021 — Togolese authorities should immediately release journalists Ferdinand Ayité and Joël Egah and halt legal harassment of Isidore Kouwonou, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On December 9, national police officers arrested Ayité, the publication director of the privately owned L’Alternative newspaper, after he responded to a summons to appear at the Research and Investigations Brigade (BIR), according to multiple media reports and Ayité’s Facebook posts. The summons followed a complaint by two Togolese government ministers who are also pastors, Pius Agbetomey and Kodjo Adédzé, about a November 30 online broadcast that featured all three of the journalists, according to the journalists’ lawyer Elom Kpade and those reports. During the broadcast, which is part of a series called “L’Autre Journal” on L’Alternative’s YouTube channel with over 15,000 followers, the journalists discussed the two ministers’ alleged corruption and manipulation of the Togo public.
The next day, on December 10, police summoned Egah, the director of the privately owned Fraternité newspaper, and Kouwonou, the editor in chief of L’Alternative. Egah was then arrested and detained, while Kouwonou was released the same day under judicial supervision, the reports and posts said. Ayité and Egah were accused of “contempt of authorities” and “propagation of falsehoods,” and Kouwonou was accused of complicity in these two crimes, Kpade told CPJ via messaging app.
“There is absolutely no reason for Togolese journalists Ferdinand Ayité and Joël Egah to have been arrested or detained. Authorities should release them immediately and put an end to the legal harassment of Isidore Kouwonou,” said Muthoki Mumo, CPJ’s Sub-Saharan Africa Representative, from Nairobi. “Togo’s laws and law enforcement should be used to protect the press and ensure they can work freely, not leveraged in efforts to intimidate or criminalize journalism.”
Anyone found guilty of “contempt against representatives of public authority” may be punished with up to two years in prison and a fine of 1 million West African francs (US$1,722), according to Togo’s penal code. Publication of false news is punishable with up to two years in prison and a fine of 2 million West African francs (US$3,445). “Coaction and complicity” punishments aligned with those of the associated crimes.
Press offenses are “decriminalized” in Togo and therefore Ayité should not have been detained, Kpade told CPJ hours after his arrest. Ferdinand’s summons and arrest took place without any documentation of the complaint, which Kpade described as an abuse of authority in a recording posted on YouTube by local media on December 10. “One cannot be arrested based simply on a phone call,” Kpade said.
“Grievances brought against journalists in the exercise of their profession must be assessed with regard to the provisions of the Press Code and not the Penal Code,” said Isidore Akollor, the president of the Togolese Press Patronage, a local media association, in a December 11 statement that CPJ reviewed and was published by local media.
State prosecutor Mawama Talaka told CPJ via messaging app that he declined to comment on the journalists’ situation because “[a]s a judicial authority, it does not seem appropriate to communicate with the press on an ongoing case.” Text messages sent to Agbetomey and Adédzé from CPJ requesting comment went unanswered.
The Togolese government has suspended L’Alternative twice in less than two years: in February 2021, when Ayité also faced legal harassment, and in April 2020, when the government suspended L’Alternative, Fraternité, and a third newspaper, Liberté. Ayité’s phone number has also appeared on the Pegasus Project list of those allegedly selected for potential spyware surveillance.