West Africa: Powerful Politicians Leverage Anti-Media Laws Against Media

(File photo) newspapers
press release

The Media Foundation for West Africa MFWA condemns the detention of Apollinaire Mewenemesse by the police in Togo, and demands the unconditional release of the journalist.

In the same breath, the MFWA also condemns the suspension of the newspaper Mr. Appolinaire edits, newspaper, La Depeche, and demands the immediate reversal of the suspension of the newspaper.

The research and investigations Brigade of the Police in Lome on March 26, 2024, detained Mewenemesse, editor of the weekly newspaper, after the journalist had honoured their invitation.

The summon was in connection with a story published by the newspaper on February 28 in which it disagreed with a court over its conviction of the head of the army, General Abalo Kadangha, in a murder trial. Kadangha was sentenced to 20 years in prison in connection with the suspicious death of Lieutenant Colonel Bitala Madjoulba, a leading figure in President Faure Gnassingbe's inner circle.

Two days after Mewenemesse's detention, an investigating judge charged the 72 year-old journalist with seven counts including defamation, false publication, incitement and undermining state security and put him on remand.

Mewenemesse's detention is the second attack on the newspaper over the critical publication. On March 4, Togo's media regulator, the higher authority for communication (HAAC), suspended La Dépeche for three months over the same story.

"Jailing a journalist only because his publication irritates some thin-skinned big men is a travesty of the most basic tenets of media freedom. The Togolese authorities cannot claim to practice democracy and, at the same, lay siege on press freedom, which is a defining feature of democracy," said Muheeb Saeed, Manager of Freedom of Expression at the MFWA.

Meanwhile, another privately-owned newspaper, Tampa Express, has been going through judicial harassment for about a year. The troubles of Tampa Express began on March 1, 2023, when a prominent Togolese businessman named Charles Kokouvi Gafan, lodged a complaint against Napo Koura, Publishing Director of the newspaper.

Mr. Gafan claims that Mr. Napo Koura authorized the "false publication" in January 2023 alleging that, as Managing Director, he mismanaged the company, Togo Terminal.

He is praying the court to order payment of 30 million West African Francs CFA(US$50,000) as legal reparation. The sum is excessive, considering that Article 290 of the penal code provides for a maximum 2 million CFA francs (US$3,321) in fine, should Napo Koura be found liable. Under the same article, the journalist could face a prison sentence of up to six months though.

A first hearing held on March 15, 2023 was adjourned to April 26 2023. Another hearing, scheduled for 20 March 2024 did not come on because Mr Amekudji, Charles Gafan's lawyer, was not present in the court, although Francisco Napo-Koura was present with his lawyer Elom Kpade. The next adjourned for the case that has lasted more than a year already is May 8, 2024.

The legal suit is part of efforts by Mr. Gafan's attempts to silence Tampa Express. The businessman got the newspaper suspended for three months from February 1, 2023 after reporting the newspaper to the HAAC.

"Mr Gafan referred the matter to the HAAC. So it gave us a three-month suspension from 1 February 2023. We challenged this at the judicial chamber because the procedure was flawed. We never received any formal notice or warning. And against all odds, on March 1, 2023, one month later, he obtained a direct summons against Tampa Express," Mr Napo Koura told the MFWA in a phone interaction.

The bi-monthly TAMPA EXPRESS is also battling a case b rought against it by Gilbert Bawara, the Minister for the Civil Service. The case which is still ongoing, is greatly frustrating the work of the private media.

The MFWA calls on the judicial authorities in Togo to deal expeditiously with these court cases, which bear the hall mark of SLAPP, (strategic litigation against popular participation), frivolous cases and flippant legal actions used by powerful people to intimidate, distract and put financial and psychological pressure of critical journalists and media organisations.

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