Benin journalist Patrice Gbaguidi and his colleague Hervé Alladé have been jailed in Cotonou, Benin’s largest city, since November 2021 on accusations that they violated the country’s digital code because their report about a public official’s alleged wrongdoing was distributed on social media.
Gbaguidi, is the editor at Le Soleil Bénin Infos newspaper, which covers politics, the courts, development, education, and social justice, among other topics.
On November 18, Gbaguidi and Alladé, owner of Le Soleil Bénin Infos, went to the Central Office for Repression of Cybercrime in Cotonou after they were summoned there by authorities, according to a post on Facebook by Gbaguidi from that day, reports by the privately owned, local Benin Web TV and DBMEDIA news sites, and Zakiatou Latoundji, the president of the Union of Media Professionals of Benin (UPMB), who spoke to CPJ over the phone.
They were then ordered to appear before a state prosecutor at a court of first instance, where they were charged with "harassment through electronic communication" under section 550 of Benin’s digital code, and then transferred by police to the local prison, according to the same Benin Web TV report, Latoundji, and Brice Ogoubiyi, a friend of Alladé and director of the local Nouvelle Expression newspaper, who also spoke to CPJ by phone.
The charges are in connection with a complaint by Marcellin Laourou, a Benin customs official, over a report by Gbaguidi in the August 25 edition of Le Soleil Bénin Infos, according to those sources. The report, which CPJ reviewed, alleged that Laourou had illegally occupied a public road, though doesn’t go into further detail about the nature of that occupation.
Ogoubiyi told CPJ the report was shared on social media, which triggered the application of the digital code. CPJ was unable to determine who shared the report.
Gbaguidi’s November 18 post on Facebook also said that he had been interrogated by authorities the week before his arrest and Latoundji told CPJ that authorities had been investigating Gbaguidi and Alladé for months over the same August 25 article before the arrest.
The journalists appeared in court again on November 30, where their request for provisional release was denied and the next hearing was postponed until December 7, 2021, according to local media reports. If convicted, Gbaguidi and Alladé could face up to two years in prison, a fine of 10 million West African francs (US$17,137), or both, according to section 550 of Benin’s digital code.
As of late 2021, the health of both journalists was stable in custody, according to an individual familiar with the case who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
CPJ’s questions sent via messaging app to the prosecutor in the case, Jules Ahoga, were marked as read but went unanswered. CPJ’s questions sent to Laourou via messaging app and SMS also received no response.