The freedom of expression of journalists has declined sharply in recent years. The media landscape is diversified but is marked by the absence of large, viable news organisations.
Thanks to the liberalisation of the broadcasting sector in 1997, the country has seen a boom in radio stations. At least 70 are operating in Benin, where they are the most popular medium. Some 15 privately owned TV channels operate alongside the state-owned broadcasters, which are overseen by the Radio and Television Office of Benin (ORTB). The country has about 100 newspapers, including the government daily La Nation, founded in 1969, as well as privately owned ones, including Le Matin, Le Matinal, Fraternité and La Nouvelle Tribune. News sites and a wire service, the Agence Bénin Presse, complete the media landscape.
In a country known for its strong tradition of free speech dating back to the 1990s, press freedom has suffered major setbacks over the past several years. The government exercises a decisive influence over the appointment of those in charge of the state-owned media and the High Authority for Broadcasting and Communication (HAAC), the media regulator. The ORTB, especially its television channels, is required to relay the government’s message, while media that support the opposition are under strong pressure. Many media outlets refrain from openly criticising the government in order to avoid a shutdown by the HAAC. The authorities also influence news coverage by means of so-called partnership contracts that reward the media for covering government activities. Guideline memos tell the editorial staff what angles to prioritise in their coverage.
Benin’s constitution, which was revised in 2019, guarantees freedom of the press, which is also protected by the organic law on the HAAC. The 2015 Information and Communication Code safeguards journalistic methods, abolishing prison sentences for press offences and guaranteeing the right of access to state-held information sources. But these laws are routinely bypassed in order to harass journalists. Since 2018, the Digital Law has been used to arbitrarily detain and convict online journalists.
The media landscape is marked by the absence of big media companies. Most media are not economically viable and are faced with a tight advertising market. The government often uses its control over the allocation of advertising contracts to deprive critical media. While a collective agreement entered into force in 2017, it is not enforced and journalists live in precarious conditions, exposing them to corruption and undermining their independence.
In theory, journalists and media outlets are free to cover all matters of public interest, but in fact, the government has, in recent years, strengthened its grip on the sector. Since Patrice Talon became president in 2016, journalists have had limited access to data relating to the country’s security situation, internally displaced persons, and mining contracts.
The deterioration of the security situation in the north of the country, where several armed attacks have taken place again this year, has resulted in repeated press freedom violations, including the detention and deportation of journalists.