Togo’s media regulator, the High Authority for Audiovisual and Communication (HAAC) suspended the privately owned La Dépêche newspaper for three months over a February 28 report. The agency also suspended publication of the Tampa Express for three months in February 2023 following a defamation complaint against publishing director Francisco Napo-Koura. (Screenschot: Africa24/YouTube)

Togo suspends La Dépêche, calls Tampa Express publisher to court on defamation charge

Dakar, March 15, 2024—Togolese authorities must end the legal harassment of the country’s Tampa Express newspaper and its publishing director Francisco Napo-Koura, reverse the three-month suspension of La Dépêche newspaper, and allow Togolese media to report freely and without fear of reprisal, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

Napo-Koura is due to appear in court on March 20 in the Togolese capital, Lomé, over a defamation complaint filed in March 2023 by Charles Kokouvi Gafan, former general manager of Togo Terminal, about a report published in the privately owned Tampa Express in January 2023 about alleged mismanagement at the company, according to the journalist, who spoke with CPJ, and a copy of a letter from his lawyer, Elom Kpade, and a copy of the complaint.

The complaint claimed Tampa Express published “false information” about Gafan that constituted defamation, and that the allegations were repeated by Napo-Koura on a broadcast by the privately owned Taxi FM and circulated on social media. The complaint also requested that the court find Tampa Express and Napo-Koura guilty of defamation under the penal code and order them to pay Gafan 30 million West African francs (about US$50,000), among other remedies.

Togo’s press code says that offenses involving journalists must be handled by the communications regulator, but in certain circumstances still allows for journalists to be prosecuted under the penal code. Article 156 of the press code says that journalists who “used social networks as a means of communication” to commit such offenses are instead “punished in accordance with the common law provisions.”

Napo-Koura could receive a prison sentence of up to six months and a fine of up to 2 million CFA francs (US$ 3,321) under Article 290 of the penal code.

Separately, on March 4, Togo’s media regulator, the High Authority for Audiovisual and Communication (HAAC) suspended the privately owned La Dépêche for three months over its February 28 report that questioned the 2023 conviction of Major General Abalo Kadangha for the murder of Lieutenant-Colonel Bitala Madjoulba in 2020, according to the newspaper’s editor Apollinaire Mewenemesse and a copy of the decision reviewed by CPJ.

“Togolese authorities should reverse their suspension of La Dépêche newspaper and cease harassing the Tampa Express newspaper and its publishing director Francisco Napo-Koura,” said Angela Quintal, head of CPJ’s Africa program. “The repeated suspension of news outlets in Togo and the threat of journalists being criminally prosecuted for their work has become far too commonplace in the country and violates citizen’s access to information.”

Gafan also complained to the HAAC last year about the same January 2023 Tampa Express article, which prompted the regulator to suspend publication of the newspaper for three months in February 2023, according to Napo-Koura, and a copy of the HAAC’s decision, reviewed by CPJ.

In the case of La Dépêche, the HAAC said the newspaper provided “no evidence to support its allegations and insinuations” about the murder trial and that its report contained incitement to tribal hatred and popular revolt and called for ethnic confrontation between military officers. These allegations were not substantiated by CPJ’s review of the report.

 The HAAC also alleged “recidivism” by La Dépêche, saying that it had previously summoned the newspaper in May 2023 and November 2020 over other reports.

Under Article 65 of Togo’s law regulating communications, the HAAC can suspend daily newspapers for up to 15 days and other publishers and broadcasters for up to four months for non-compliance with its recommendations, decisions, and warnings.

Napo-Koura has previously faced legal action over his reporting. In September, he was questioned by judicial police following a complaint by the civil service minister, Gilbert Bawara, over an August 2023 Tampa Express report on allegations of corruption in civil service recruitment, Napo-Koura and Kpade told CPJ, adding that the case was pending with the prosecutor.

CPJ’s calls to Gafan and the HAAC to request comment were not answered.

The HAAC suspended Liberté newspaper in 2022 and L’Alternative and Fraternité newspapers in 2021 and barred L’Indépendant Express from publishing in 2021 over their critical reporting.