Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the immediate release of Ignace Sossou, a Beninese investigative journalist who has been held for more than two weeks because of his tweets about the comments that the Cotonou public prosecutor made at a media workshop.
A newly released transcript of the prosecutor's comments shows that Sossou reported them accurately, so there are no grounds for not freeing him at once, RSF says, calling for his conviction on a charge of "harassment" to be overturned.
Arrested at his home on 20 December, Sossou was sentenced five days later to 18 months in prison on a charge of "harassment by means of electronic communication" for reporting in Twitter and Facebook posts what the prosecutor said at a media workshop organized on 18 December by the French media development agency (CFI).
But a transcript of the prosecutor's comments, released by CFI on 2 January, shows that Sossou quoted him word for word, with a few very minor exceptions that in no way distorted what he said.
During the workshop, the prosecutor said the use of Internet cuts "in Benin and elsewhere" constituted an "admission of weakness on the part of the political authorities vis-à-vis the phenomenon of fake news." He also said referred to Benin's current digital communication law as a "gun pointed at journalists' heads."
"Jailing this journalist for 18 months for reporting comments no longer constitutes just a serious abuse and an illegitimate sentence, as we already said, but has now also been shown to be factually unwarranted," RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. "We ask the Beninese authorities not to set a new and dangerous precedent by jailing journalists for quoting comments out of context when the comments reported were actually said and their sense was not distorted. This reporter must be freed at once and his conviction must be quashed as quickly as possible."
The head of production at Bénin Web TV, a member of the CENOZO project for data and cross-border journalism in West Africa, and a member of the 3i investigative journalists' network, Sossou was already given a one-month suspended prison sentence last August for helping to expose a tax evasion case involving a French businessman operating in Benin.
Unlike some of its West African neighbours, Benin has experienced a major decline in press freedom in recent years. Soleil FM, an opposition radio station whose signal is often jammed, has been suspended until further notice for the past two weeks over a simple administrative issue. Officials insist that its owner, Sébastien Ajavon, a leading opponent of the current president, must personally sign the renewal of its licence although he lives in self-imposed exile in France.
Since Patrice Talon became president in 2016, several outspoken or pro-opposition media outlets have been suspended, journalists have been arrested and the Internet was disconnected during the parliamentary elections in April 2019.
Benin is ranked 96th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2019 World Press Freedom Index after falling 18 places in the past two years.