Togo: Suspension of “L’Alternative” newspaper is an attack on press freedom and the right to information

Togo:  Suspension of “L’Alternative” newspaper is an attack on press freedom and the right to information - Media

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ARTICLE 19 urges the Haute Autorité de l’Audiovisuel et de la Communication (HAAC) in Togo to reconsider its decision to suspend the bi-weekly “L’Alternative” newspaper for four months, accusing it of publishing false information about the Minister of Town Planning, Housing and Land Reform. 

Alfred Nkuru Bulakali, Deputy Regional Director of ARTICLE 19 Senegal/West Africa, said: 

“The HAAC’s decision to suspend a media outlet for reporting on an issue of public interest after a flawed investigation is a troubling indication that the press is not free in Togo. This decision is a real setback for freedom of expression. This suspension will only intimidate the media into self-censorship.

The role of media in society is crucial, and suspending this newspaper for false information is depriving citizens of their rights , which is even worse in this period of health crisis.”

On 2 February 2021, “L’Alternative” newspaper published an article accusing the Minister of Town Planning, Housing and Land Reform of being a “forger in the government”, claiming he was fraudulently acting as an administrator of a property that belonged to a family of a deceased wealthy trader.

The day after the publication, the Minister of Town Planning, Housing and Land Reform filed a complaint and accused “L’Alternative” and its Editor of defamation and an attack on his honour. 

On 5 February, the HAAC invited the Editor of the newspaper “L’Alternative” to a hearing on the Minister’s complaint. That same day the HAAC announced its decision to suspend “L’Alternative” for four months. According to the institution, the newspaper had not provided any evidence to respond to the allegations during the hearing. The HAAC further claimed that “L’Alternative” used insulting remarks in the publication, confirming their professional misconduct.

Following this decision taken by the HAAC, ARTICLE 19 interviewed the Editor of “L’Alternative” Ferdinand Ayité, who stated:

“The HAAC’s decision is arbitrary as it is not founded on any substantial evidence. We submitted our evidence to the HAAC, and the president and members of the HAAC advised us that it is the judiciary that examines the evidence. We are then surprised that in their decision, they say that we did not bring any evidence.” 

This rushed and disproportionate decision by the HAAC is arbitrary because it did not indicate what insulting language the newspaper used or what provisions of the ethical code it violated. In a letter from the Editor of “”L’Alternative”” to the President of the HAAC, the Editor stressed that he had sent a letter on 18 January 2021 to the Minister’s office to schedule a meeting. But the Minister appeared to be unavailable. After two weeks of follow up, he informed the Office of the Minister that the article would be published. Instead of responding to the newspaper, the Minister’s Office wrote to the HAAC requesting it to facilitate and organise a meeting to discuss the allegations. The Minister’s office called the newspaper the day before publication to deliver this letter, but by that time, the newspaper was already at the printing stage. 

The Editor further stressed that “L’Alternative” did submit evidence, but during the hearing, the HAAC emphasised that the judiciary, not it, should look at the evidence for the allegations. 

Moreover, this decision didn’t have unanimity within the HAAC. In a letter to the President of  the HAAC on 8 February 2021, one member of the HAAC, Zeus Komi Aziadouvo, disassociated himself from the institution, affirming that the decision didn’t reflect the course of the hearing. He claimed that the HAAC didn’t adequately investigate the documents provided by the Minister and the newspaper. 

The law governing the HAAC stipulates that the regulator is independent of the authorities, political parties, and any pressure group.

 

Against the Constitution

This decision to suspend the newspaper “L’Alternative” constitutes a violation of press freedom and a form of censorship that deprives citizens of exercising their right to freedom of expression and access to information, as guaranteed by the 1992 Constitution of Togo.  The African Charter and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Togo is a state party, also guarantee the right to expression and information. Togo’s 2016 law on freedom of access to public information and documentation also guarantees the right of access to information. 

It is not the first time that the authorities have silenced independent newspapers following their reporting on politicians. In January 2021, for example, the Togolese justice system banned the publication of the newspaper “L’Indépendant Express” at the request of the HAAC because of the publication of an article entitled “End of year scoop: Women Ministers arrested for stealing golden spoons” in December 2020. In March 2020, the HAAC suspended the newspapers “Liberté” and “L’Alternative” for two months following a complaint from the French Embassy in Togo. They were accused of publishing articles containing “serious, unfounded and slanderous accusations” against the French ambassador to Togo, whom the newspapers suspected of interference in Togo’s electoral process.

“We are really worried about the multiple and severe decisions of the HAAC  to suspend media outlets in Togo,” said Alfred Nkuru Bulakali, Deputy Regional Director of ARTICLE 19 Senegal/West Africa. “Guaranteeing the freedom and protection of the press should be on the HAAC’s agenda instead of taking draconian decisions to muzzle freedom of expression and restrict the right of access to information.  

The HAAC should implement Principle 16 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, which encourages states to enable media self-regulation.

The HAAC and the Togolese authorities should further work towards the implementation of the 2016 UPR Recommendations, which emphasized the importance of  protecting freedom of expression and the press. Togo accepted these but is yet to implement them. In practice, Togo continues to take drastic measures to restrict access to information and freedom of expression in the media.

 

For more information, please reach out to:

Alfred Nkuru Bulakali, Deputy Regional Director: senegal@article19.org

Or Eliane NYOBE, Senior Program Assistant, ARTICLE 19 West Africa: eliane@article19.org   

Tel: +221 77 553 13 87 or +221 33 869 03 22

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