Dark clouds over investigative journalism in Togo

Ferdinand Ayite (left) and Isidore Kouwonou (right)

Yesterday March 15, 2023 would go down in history as one of the darkest days for investigative journalism in Togo. A court verdict in the neighbouring country gives indications of judicial strangulation of independent journalism, in no uncertain terms.

In Togo, a country that borders Ghana to the east, a bizarre one-day court sitting tried and found three investigative journalists guilty of ‘contempt and defamation’, for criticizing two ministers of State in a broadcast. One of the journalists is deceased.

The two journalists alive are, Ferdinand Ayite, publisher of the independent investigative bi-weekly, L’Alternative and its editor, Isidore Kouwonou, and the deceased Joel Egah who was publisher of the Fraternite newspaper were tried and jailed three years, fined CFA3 million approximately $5000 and an international warrant issued for their arrest. The journalists were tried in absentia.

The case which started in December 2021 included the Late Joel Egah, publisher of the Fraternite newspaper. The three journalists had participated in a video discussion which was broadcast on YouTube. On December 9, 2021, Ayite was arrested in the newspaper’s offices by men in civilian clothes.

When the journalists appeared in court, they were later detained and held for three weeks before being released. Egah died weeks after their release from prison.

Yesterday, however in the court in the capital Lome, Egah was tried with the two living journalists in absentia, jailed, fined and an arrest warrant issued for them.

“By including the deceased Egah, the authorities want to send a message that even if a journalist was dead, they would still be tried, found guilty and jailed,” a Togolese journalist told Ghana Business News on conditions of anonymity, adding, “There is currently a wave of fear among journalists in the country.”

Ayite and his colleague critical journalists are no strangers to pressure from the authorities for doing journalism. He has been arrested, detained, tried and fined in the past. His newspaper had been suspended before by the regulatory authorities.

In a press release issued in Lome March 15, and copied to Ghana Business News, the Editorial Board of L’Alternative says, they noticed that security operatives on motorbikes have been tailing Ayite, and sensing the possibility of his incarceration if he appeared in court, had arranged for him to flee the country.

The journalists were served with summons on Sunday March 5, 2023 and asked to appear in court, but sensing they won’t get justice, took the most difficult decision to flee the country.

“It is clear that for several years, the regime has been striving to silence one of the leading investigative newspapers in Togo through abusive suspensions of the High Authority for Audiovisual and Communication (HAAC), harassment by the judiciary through complaints before the courts, tax harassment, threats, etc.

The parody of the March 15 trial and the ridiculous verdict that came out of it are only the culmination of a plan aimed at definitively silencing one of the newspapers which continues to inform the populations in complete independence and objectivity,” the release said.

With the publisher and editor in exile, the Board has indicated it would find alternative ways to continue to publish.

The charges were brought against the journalists by the Ministers of Commerce, Industry and Local Consumption, Kodzo Adedze and Justice Pius Agbetomey.

By Emmanuel K Dogbevi
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