Togolese journalist Apollinaire Mewenemesse was charged with numerous defamation, incitement, and anti-state offenses on March 28, 2024. (Photo: Courtesy of Ricardo Agouzou)

Togo journalist Apollinaire Mewenemesse detained for defamation

Dakar, April 1, 2024—Togolese authorities must release journalist Apollinaire Mewenemesse, drop all legal proceedings against him, and reform the country’s laws to prevent journalists from being arrested for their work, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Monday.

An investigating judge charged Mewenemesse, publishing director of the privately owned weekly newspaper La Dépêche, with numerous defamation, incitement, and anti-state offenses on March 28 in the capital, Lomé, according to Mewenemesse’s lawyer, Darius Atsoo, and La Dépêche editor, Ricardo Agouzou, who spoke to CPJ.

On March 26, the Research and Investigation Brigade (BRI), a division of the Togolese National Police, summoned and detained Mewenemesse at its office in Lomé following a judicial inquiry requested by Mawame Talaka, the public prosecutor at the Lomé court, Talaka told CPJ, before declining to comment further.

The charges are in connection to a February 28 report by the paper questioning the findings in a murder trial of an army officer. On March 4, Togo’s media regulator suspended La Dépêche for three months over the same report.

“Togolese authorities must immediately release journalist Apollinaire Mewenemesse and drop all legal proceedings against him,” said Angela Quintal, head of CPJ’s Africa program, in New York. “This new arrest is yet another grim signal for press freedom in Togo. Journalists must be free to cover the news freely without fear of arrest and prosecution.”

Atsoo told CPJ that Mewenemesse was charged with “defamation and offense to the head of state”and “defamation of courts and tribunals” under the press code. Each charge carries a fine of up to three million CFA francs (U.S. $5,000).

According to Atsoo, Mewenemesse was also charged with several offenses under Togo’s penal code:

  • Inciting an offense against national defense under Article 552, which is punishable by between five and 10 years of criminal imprisonment and a fine of up to 25 million CFA francs (US$41,000)
  • Inciting inter-ethnic hatred under Article 553, which carries one to three years imprisonment and a fine of up to three million CFA francs (US$5,000)
  • Calling for an uprising against the state under Article 663, which carries between 20 and 30 years imprisonment
  • Creating and spreading false news for seditious purposes under Article 665, which is punishable by between one and five years of criminal imprisonment and a fine of up to 25 million CFA francs (US$41,000)
  • Forgery and use of forgeries under Articles 670 and 673, which carries up to two years imprisonment and a fine of up to two million CFA francs (US$3,300)

In Togo, press offenses are handled under the press code. However, certain circumstances allow for journalists to be prosecuted under the penal code, such as under Article 156, which says journalists who use social media to commit such offenses are instead “punished in accordance with the common law provisions.”

Similarly, Articles 157 and 158 of the press code allow authorities to prosecute journalists under ordinary law when they have called for inter-racial or inter-ethnic hatred, incited the population to break the law, or called on the armed forces and law enforcement agencies to “turn away from their duties to the homeland.”

Atsoo told CPJ that the five charges under the penal code did not make any sense, as the February 28 report was published in print and did not include incitement of ethnic hatred, or the other allegations of anti-state communications. CPJ was unable to verify whether the report was posted on social media.

When asked about the use of the penal code against Mewenemesse, Talaka said he didn’t have to answer to CPJ.