Togo: Convicting 'Petrolgate' Journalist of Defamation Would Be Disastrous, RSF Says

press release

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the acquittal of a Togolese investigative journalist who is due to appear in court in Lomé tomorrow on a criminal defamation charge for exposing allegedly corrupt practices in the importation of petroleum products.

In a case that is as emblematic as it is unprecedented and has been a front-page story in Togo for weeks, Ferdinand Ayité, the editor of the investigative biweekly L'Alternative, is being prosecuted for sensational revelations implicating senior officials, including several ministers, in the alleged embezzlement of massive amounts of money.

After several adjournments, the Lomé criminal court is finally expected to begin tomorrow to address the substance of the defamation case brought by the coordinator of the Committee for Monitoring Fluctuations in Petroleum Products (CSFPPP), which is responsible for negotiating the importation of petroleum products in Togo.

In an investigative report published on 9 June, Ayité's newspaper claimed that CSFPPP officials had managed to embezzle hundreds of millions of euros by means of an opaque system of contract bidding.

Ayité is facing a possible fine of up to 4,500 euros under the press code adopted earlier this year. But the plaintiff is also demanding the destruction of all copies of the issue containing the story, the deletion of all online versions, an additional 7,600 euros in damages and the publication of the court's decision in the newspaper, occupying half of the front page.

"This trial is a real test for Togolese justice and its outcome will give a very clear indication of the space for investigative journalism and the fight against misgovernance in Togo today," said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF's Africa desk. "Ferdinand Ayité's conviction would send a disastrous message to all those whose reporting helps to combat corruption. We call for this journalist's acquittal and protection against all forms of intimidation and judicial harassment in connection with this sensitive case."

When reached by RSF, Ayité said he expected the justice system to "do its job" in order to "put an end to impunity and the Republic of the Untouchables." President Faure Gnassingbé made combatting corruption, and avoiding "waste and theft," one of the main issues of his campaign for reelection for a fourth term in February.

The so-called "petrolgate" scandal has forced the authorities to order a still-ongoing audit of the petroleum importation process. A memo from the commerce ministry to the speaker of the national assembly, which RSF has seen, recognizes that the current system for importing petroleum products is "perfectible" and that "all serious and sufficient evidence would be welcome in order to shed all possible light on this case, which does not exclude a judicial phase if the claims prove to be true."

Togo is ranked 71st out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

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