A journalist who revealed offshore accounts and shell companies of a corporate titan and French trade representative has been fined and given a suspended jail sentence by a court in Benin, West Africa.
On August 12, the criminal court in Benin's capital, Cotonou, found reporter Ignace Sossou guilty of publishing "false news" under the country's draconian online press law about Benin-born businessman Jean-Luc Tchifteyan.
The court ordered Sossou pay $846, ten times the average monthly salary of a journalist in Benin.
Sossou's lawyer denied the charges in court and will appeal the decision.
"These articles were published with our full support and we support our reporter," said Paul Arnaud, director of Sossou's publication, BeninWebTV.
Sossou was a member of the award-winning 2018 West Africa Leaks investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and reporters from 11 countries in the region. It is the region's largest-ever collaboration of investigative journalists.
Sossou revealed that Tchifteyan, who runs one of Benin's largest supermarkets, owned a Panama shell company with a Swiss bank account to receive $150,000 a year in commissions from suppliers.
ICIJ, which also published an investigation about Tchifteyan's Panama company, spoke to a Benin tax official in 2018 who said: "Of course something like this is going to interest us."
Tchifteyan did not respond to ICIJ's repeated requests for comment via email, telephone or WhatsApp. The supermarket magnate, who owns other Benin businesses and is an unpaid trade adviser appointed by the French government, also did not respond to BeninWebTV prior to publication.
In a separate investigation unconnected to ICIJ's West Africa Leaks, Sossou reported that a paint product company owned by the Tchifteyan family received payments from suppliers to a bank account in Europe.
Lawyers for Tchifteyan declined to respond to questions, according to BeninWebTV.
Tchifteyan is a well-known entrepreneur in the small West African nation. The country's former president, Thomas Boni Yayi, opened the family's expansive Erevan Supermarket in 2009.
In April 2019, Benin's anti-cybercrime agency questioned Sossou about the accuracy of information in two stories published by BeninWebTV.
Edgar Zola, the head of Benin's anti-cybercrime agency, told ICIJ in a short telephone interview: "Benin is a country of laws."
In 2017, Benin's parliament introduced a new digital media law that, according to Amnesty International, allows for journalists to be prosecuted and jailed for publishing factual news online, even when the journalist can demonstrate the accuracy of the publication. In April, Benin shut down the nation's leading Internet provider in the lead-up to parliamentary elections, leading Amnesty International to warn against deteriorating press freedom.
"This decision clearly shows the desire of authorities in Benin to muzzle, or at least intimidate, any media with a critical voice," said the executive director of Amnesty International in Benin, Fidèle Kikan.
The current environment in Benin is "very hostile and very unfavorable to journalism," Kikan said. "It is Benin's democracy that is likely to suffer."