New York — Togolese authorities should immediately and unconditionally release journalists Loic Lawson and Anani Sossou, and reform the country's laws and regulations to ensure journalism is not criminalized, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.
On Tuesday, November 14, an investigating judge at a Lomé court charged Lawson, publication director of the privately-owned newspaper Le Flambeau des Démocrates, and Sossou, a freelance reporter, with disseminating false news and attacking the honor of a minister, according to Magloire Teko Kinvi, the editor-in-chief of Le Flambeau des Démocrates, and news reports. Sossou was also charged with inciting a revolt, Kinvi said.
The charges against the journalists, who were arrested the previous day, follow a complaint by Togo's Minister of Urban Planning and Land Reform, Kodjo Sévon-Tépé Adédzé, over posts by the journalists on social media discussing alleged theft of money from Adédzé's home.
On November 15, authorities transferred Lawson and Sossou to the Lomé Civil Prison, according to Kinvi. CPJ could not confirm if the journalists' next court date had been scheduled.
"Togo's authorities must release journalists Loic Lawson and Anani Sossou, drop the charges against them, and allow them to report freely on current events," said Angela Quintal, CPJ's Africa program coordinator. "The arrest and ongoing prosecution of Lawson and Sossou is just the latest example of Togolese authorities' aggressive efforts to control the local press."
Offenses against honor are punishable with up to six months' suspended imprisonment while the dissemination of false news is punishable with up to two years' imprisonment. Incitement to revolt is punishable with up to five years' imprisonment, according to the Togolese penal code.
Reached by CPJ, Adédzé declined to comment on why he had brought the complaint against the journalists and said that questions should be addressed to judicial authorities. He said all "developed countries" had regulations governing the press.
Togolese state prosecutor Mawama Talaka told CPJ that he could not comment on the case because it was before the investigating judge.
Another Togolese journalist, Ferdinand Ayité, has also faced prosecution by Togolese authorities following a complaint by Adédzé and another minister. He and his colleague Isidore Kouwonou fled into exile in March, just days before a Togolese court sentenced them both to three years in prison.
Ayité, who is in the U.S. this week to receive CPJ's 2023 International Press Freedom Award for courage in journalism, called on Togo to reform its laws to prevent the prosecution of the press for reporting on social media after Lawson and Sossou were charged.
"Togo more than ever needs to reform its texts which criminalize journalists who use social networks," Ayité wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter.
Togo has a press code which says that offenses involving journalists must be handled by the communications regulator, but has carveouts for journalists to be prosecuted under the penal code.
Article 156 of the press code, for example, says that journalists who "used social networks as a means of communication" to commit such offenses are instead "punished in accordance with the common law provisions."