22 March 2011

Africa News: Togo: Violating the right to information

By Bernard Bokodjin 

In a country where the opposition isn’t strong and structured enough to provide a counterweight to a repressive regime which flouts the principles of democracy and good governance, the media provides a rare space for some amount of freedom of expression. But now, the media have also become part of the Togolese regime’s blacklist.

The former president of the Togolese republic General Gnassingbé Eyadéma died on 5 February 2005. He ruled the country with an iron fist for almost four decades – assassination, imprisonment and the routine violation of the human rights of political opponents were the order of the day. The Togolese people thought they were free after his death, but those hopes were scuppered by the army, which installed Eyadéma’s son in power. The repression which followed the people’s uprising led to a sham election to legitimise what was in fact a coup d’état by Gnassingbe’s son. 

Fauré Gnassingbé has managed to stay on in power in this tiny West African nation despite the will of his people and a blood bath, which according to the UN left 800 people dead. The track record of the ruling Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais is grim – there is systematic repression of protest, journalists are harassed and radios and newspapers have been shut down. 

Re-elected for a second term on 4 March 2010, President Fauré continues to use the same methods that allowed him to stay in power in 2005. While the people reel under miserable conditions – no sanitary infrastructure, bad roads, lack of drinking water – the regime chooses to go after whatever media dares to criticise its poor track record. Three radios (Radio Metropolys, X-Solair, Providence FM) have recently been banned and two newspapers (Golfe Info and the bimonthly Beninois Tribune d’Afrique) taken to court.


For some time now, the media have begun airing interactive programmes in a bid to help people understand political developments and current affairs. These programmes, often in local languages, allow people to express their opinions on issues or question guests on the show. The programmes have solid audiences, an important factor to remember in the context of the huge illiteracy rate (80 per cent) in Togo. However, the regime fears that these kinds of programmes could spark unrest and hence uses everything in its power to prevent the media from carrying on.

Radio X Solair was shut down on the pretext that it didn’t have an installation licence, though it had been on air for several years and had never defaulted on its annual tax. Two other radios were shut down immediately afterwards to cover up the campaign against X Solair. Radio Metropolys and Providence were also accused of not possessing a licence and that their infrastructure was rundown. It appears therefore that the regime doesn’t want these media outlets to function, given that it’s the High Authority for Broadcasting and Communication (HAAC) which issues licences in the first place.

The two newspapers in question were charged with defamation against Mey Gnassingbé, the brother of the head of state. On 25 August 2010, the Benin bimonthly was ordered to pay a 6 million FCFA fine and 60 million in damages to Mey Gnassingbé for having accused of him of links to drug trafficking. It was also banned in Togo. The appeal proceedings of the magazine Tribune d’Afrique, due to have taken place on 18 February, has been postponed to 14 April on the request of the plaintiff without any explanation. Naturally, the paper will be banned in Togo in the interim. 

Golfe Info, which has appealed against similar accusations, also has to wait until 14 April to know its fate, but at least it is allowed to publish in the meantime. The private Togolese newspaper was ordered by the First Appeals Court in Lome to pay a 1.5 million FCFA fine (US$3,000) for ‘misquoting’ the National Intelligence Agency (ANR) in one of its editions last September. The paper is facing a 100 million FCFA fine and a three-month suspension, as well as a public retraction of the alleged quote. Golfe Info, which is published three times a week, had published an article on 30 September on the arrest of a Togolese television anchor close to the presidency in a drugs-related affair. According to several sources, Eugene Attigan had been arrested at Lome International Airport.

The article in question, ‘Drug trafficking in Togo – an embarrassment for the presidency’, quoted the National Intelligence Agency as saying the television anchor had a diplomatic passport when he was arrested. The newspaper suggested he possessed a diplomatic passport because of his ties to the presidency.

The Togolese regime, which has been in power since 1967, remains deaf to calls for freedom of expression and information. Social justice movements therefore must continue to mobilise, especially after the recent World Social Forum in Dakar and challenge the arbitrary decisions of African rulers. Especially in Togo where municipal elections are around the corner, there is an urgent need for the polls to be democratic and transparent. Mobilisation is underway to push the authorities to allow the radios to go back on air and abandon legal proceedings against the newspapers.


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