ARTICLE 19 is urging the Haute Autorité de l’audiovisuel et de la communication (HAAC) in Benin to reconsider its decision to close all online media that don’t have HAAC’s authorisation and reform the legal framework for media.
Fatou Jagne Senghore, Regional Director of ARTICLE 19 West Africa, said:
“To close online media solely because they did not ask for approval is a serious violation of freedom of expression and access to information. We can already see how this announcement has created panic and fear among online media and will result in self-censure of media to avoid sanctions. Online media is essential for informing the public.”
On 7 July 2020, the Haute Autorité de l’audiovisuel et de la communication (HAAC) ordered the closure of online media for violating article 252 of the 2015 Information and Communication Code. This law requires all internet sites that provide audiovisual and written information to request approval from HAAC.
The minister of Communication and Post, Alain Orounla supported the HAAC’s announcement, saying it would bring discipline to the online media sector.
Media owners consider the HAAC’s decision as a severe infringement of press freedom. Through a press release, they expressed their disappointment for the lack of consultation between the HAAC and them.
ARTICLE 19 interviewed a media owner who said that following HAAC’s decision to suspend the media, he closed his media outlet for a month. He decided to reopen despite fears of HAAC sanctions.
“Several media outlets have waited more than a year for HAAC to return an authorisation, even though they should respond within three months. It is unacceptable that they now have to close because of administrative failures and slowness.”
“We are really shocked that HAAC’s decision creates a climate of fear within the online media. The closure of a media outlet has an impact on the right to information”, added said Fatou Jagne Senghore.
Many other media owners have expressed similar concerns about the HAAC’s decision, which they perceive as an attempt to muzzle freedom of expression.
“The HAAC must avoid any harsh actions that threaten media freedom. The decision to close online media outlets constitutes a serious infringement of media freedom and a form of censorship that robs citizens from exercising their right to freedom of expression and access to information,” said Fatou Jagne Senghore.
A dangerous, backward step for media freedom
The requirement for any person providing online content services to obtain authorisation from the public body is incompatible with international human rights law. Online media should not be subject to HAAC authorisation before operating.
This imposition of such sanctions by the HAAC, which is a public body, could facilitate government interference in media control. The HAAC must stick to its role of guaranteeing and ensuring the freedom and protection of the press and regulating the work of the media.
The 2011 Joint Statement by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media and the Organisation of American States (OAS), Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression state that: “No one should be required to register with or obtain permission from any public body to operate an Internet service provider, website, blog or other online information dissemination system, including Internet broadcasting. This does not apply to registration with a domain name authority for purely technical reasons or rules of general application which apply without distinction to any kind of commercial operation.”
Numerous people have called on the HAAC to lift the suspension of online media as it violates the rights to freedom of expression and access to information as guaranteed by the constitution of Benin and international human rights law and standards.
On 16 July, two media organisations, the Conseil National du Patronat de la Presse et de l’Audiovisuel (CNPA) and the Union des Professionnels des Médias du Bénin met with the Minister of Communication and Postal Services to discuss various problems undermining the media profession in Benin. They asked the minister to mediate and end HAAC’s suspension. Although the Minister of Communication and Post did meet with the HAAC in July to discuss removing the ban, HAAC’s decision remains effective nearly three months after this meeting.
In a meeting on August 13, 2020, Union des Professionals des médias au Benin (UPMB) held a meeting with HAAC’s president to discuss the lifting of this decision. They both opted for the regulation of the sector. According to the president of the UPMB Mrs, Zakiath Latoundji, the president of HAAC will do everything possible to allow these media that operate online to have their authorisation and to be able to normally exercise their activities.
Following these meetings aimed at lifting this decision, ARTICLE 19 interviewed Regroupement des Promoteurs et Professionnels des Médias Digitaux du Bénin (Repromed). Eustache Agboton, president of Repromed said:
“Repromed noted that a series of meetings has been held since the HAAC communiqué, aiming to better harmonise the online media regulation policy in Benin. We appreciate the willingness of all parties to work in synergy for the recognition of the online press in Benin. Online media play an undeniable role in the country’s media landscape in terms of collection, processing and dissemination of credible and reliable information.”
Creation of a favourable framework to guarantee media freedom
ARTICLE 19 urges the online media to embrace an effective self-regulation framework. This framework should promote quality and accountability in the media. The government must avoid using laws to restrict freedom of expression but rather favour dialogue with media owners to take into account their constraints and find solutions to guarantee media freedom.
To find alternative solutions to promote media freedom, ARTICLE 19 approached a media owner who preferred to remain anonymous:
“HAAC must support existing online media, while progressively regulating the sector, it must allow existing online media to continue to operate, as several West African countries are doing now”.
Previous closures of media outlets by the HAAC
In recent years, media freedom has deteriorated, and the authorities continue to threaten the media and journalists. In 2020, Benin dropped 17 places in the World Press Freedom Index from 96th to the current 113th place.
- In 2019, radio Soleil FM was suspended following HAAC’s denial to renew its licence.
- In 2018, La Nouvelle Tribune, a daily newspaper was also suspended for “insulting comments towards the Head of State”.
- In 2017, in its trial for the “abusive closure” of Sikka TV, the court ordered HAAC to pay a fine of 50,000,000 CFA francs and the reopening of the media. Sikka TV is a television station owned by a political figure, he was a candidate in the 2016 presidential election. The HAAC had previously considered Sikka TV as a “pirate television“.
- In 2016, HAAC had ordered the closure of 4 audiovisual media for various reasons.
HAAC’s decision violates the rights to freedom of expression and access to information
By ordering the online media to cease all publications, the HAAC has violated its own organic law of 1992, the African Charter and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which guarantee the right to expression and information.
Freedom of expression, information and freedom of the media are protected by the Constitution of the Republic of Benin in its section 8 .
Benin must also respect its international commitments to which it has subscribed, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights(ICCPR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
In a Joint declaration, four Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Expression with the support of ARTICLE 19 called on states to ensure that media regulatory bodies are independent, operate transparently, are accountable to the public, respect the principle of limited scope of regulation, and provide appropriate supervision of private actors.
Principle 16 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa encourages states to self-regulate the media through impartial, expeditious, and inexpensive means and promotes the establishment of high standards in the media.
Furthermore, during the 2017 Universal Periodic Review, it was recommended to prevent arbitrary suspension of the media. Benin accepted this recommendation but is yet to implement it. In practice, Benin continues to take drastic measures to restrict the right of access to information and freedom of expression.
“Improper decisions to close media outlets by HAAC are increasingly regular in Benin and are an infringement on media freedom. The authorities of Benin must ensure they respect the country ‘national and international commitments, protect freedom of expression and access to information and create a favourable framework to guarantee media freedom”.
For more information, please reach out to:
Eliane NYOBE, Senior Program Assistant, ARTICLE 19 West Africa: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tel: +221 77 553 13 87 or +221 33 869 03 22
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