The Republic of Benin is considered one of the democratic states in Africa. A member of the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, Benin is bound by the democratic ethos of these august African organisations, both leading the continent to express fully the sacrosanct principles of the freedoms espoused and enjoyed by all civilized peoples of the world where democracy is appreciated and practiced.
It is therefore inconceivable that the authorities in Benin who are occupying the positions of trust through elections have suddenly turned all guns blazing against civil society and particularly the media and journalists.
The conviction and jailing today, December 24, 2019, the Eve of Christmas, of one of the country’s outstanding journalists, Ignace Sossou an editor with Benin WEB TV is a chilling reminder that Benin is failing in solidifying its democratic credentials. The 18-month sentencing of Sossou who was arrested from his home last Friday and tried within two days is a slap in the face of justice. His crime was that he had posted on Facebook, statements by a public official – statements that were made in public, by the way. Sossou only shared on Facebook statements made by the Beninoise Public Prosecutor Mario Mètonou.
On his first day in court on December 20, he was accused of defamation and disinformation in relation to Mètonou, according to Benin Web TV report and a statement from the Union of Media Professionals in Benin, a local press union, which was broadcast by the YouTube channel Icône TV.
Considering that this is the second time in a year that Sossou is being convicted for doing journalism is a miscarriage of justice, because journalism is not a crime.
In August this year, Sossou was convicted for revealing offshore accounts and shell companies of a businessman and French trade representative in Benin. He was fined and given a one-month suspended jail sentence by a court.
The criminal court in Benin’s capital, Cotonou, on August 12, found him guilty of publishing “false news” under the country’s draconian online press law about Benin-born businessman Jean-Luc Tchifteyan.
The court additionally, ordered him to pay a fine of $846. The amount is ten times the average monthly salary of a journalist in that country.
Sossou is a member of the Norbert Zongo Centre for Investigative Journalism (CENOZO), an organization that mobilises, trains and works with investigative journalists in West Africa to hold the powerful to account. He was part of the history making team of 13 journalists from 11 West African countries who worked on the multi-award winning West Africa Leaks which was coordinated by CENOZO and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
West Africa Leaks is a continuation of ground-breaking journalism collaborations like Panama Papers and Paradise Papers that exposed offshore accounts of wealthy business people, politicians, their appointees and close associates. The impact of Panama Papers and Paradise Papers are well known, as the reporting has led to major reforms in tax regulations around the world and some countries have retrieved more $1.6 billion in taxes from tax dodgers. In the US currently, some individuals are facing trial for tax evasion as a result of publications from Panama Papers.
Sossou like all journalists fulfilling their constitutional mandate, should be protected and not persecuted.
Sadly, these attacks on journalism are growing in West Africa. In countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea and Liberia, journalists who should be protected by the state are being hounded, killed, jailed and chased out of their countries, for simply doing their work.
The imprisonment of Sossou is a glaring attack on freedom of expression, the press and a savage attack on the dignity of the dedicated journalist and all like-minded people whose supreme duty is to expose and fight corruption.
No democratic state, worth its salt, would jail its journalists; and the authorities in Benin, have by this action failed to live up to the democratic principles they have signed up to.
The authorities must do the honourable thing and free the journalist. He has committed no crime in sharing relevant and important information that is in the public interest.
By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi