Abuja — An appellate court in Benin should overturn the conviction and toss out a prison sentence handed to the director of a private television station last week in connection with a broadcast of a press conference in September in which a former presidential adviser criticized President Boni Yayi, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On January 16, a judge in Cotonou, the commercial capital, sentenced Berthe Cakpossa, director of Canal 3 TV, to three months in prison, a fine of 500,000 francs CFA (US$1,000), and symbolic damages of 1 franc CFA, according to news reports. Cakpossa was charged with "offending the head of state," news reports said.
Her defense lawyer, Claret Dedie, told CPJ the journalist was appealing the decision. Dedie also said that prison terms of less than six months do not require immediate incarceration in Benin, and that the appeal had suspended the execution of the sentence.
Cakpossa was charged under the penal code in connection with a September 18 broadcast of a press conference in which Lionel Agbo, a former adviser to Yayi, had accused the president's entourage of corruption and alleged that the head of state was aware, according to local journalists and news reports. Under Benin's 1997 press law, journalists are considered the author of third-party statements they report, Dedie told CPJ. Agbo was sentenced to six months in jail on the same charges, Cakpossa said.
The day after the broadcast, Yayi filed a complaint to the state-run media regulator, the High Authority for Broadcasting and Communications (HAAC), in which he denied the accusations and accused Canal 3 of undermining national cohesion and "disturbing public order," news reports said. On November 20, HAAC suspended two of Canal 3's TV programs. Yayi's complaint led to the case against Cakpossa.
"President Yayi retaliated against a journalist who conveyed a message he did not like and then pressured the courts to impose his will. He is sending a message that his government is off-limits to critical scrutiny," said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita from New York. "We call on the appeals court to overturn this verdict, which is a stain on Benin's image as a free, democratic nation."
Cakpossa told CPJ she had been involved in a separate trial based on a related complaint filed by Yayi's aides in response to the September broadcast. She said she had been acquitted of criminal defamation charges in that case.
Dedie told CPJ he was surprised by Cakpossa's conviction for offending the president when Yayi had recently some aides accused of corruption. Dedie also pointed out that Cakpossa had been prosecuted in two separate trials in connection with the same broadcast, but that she had been convicted only in the case in which the complainant was the president.
For more data and analysis on Benin, visit CPJ's Benin page here.