International warrant for two Togolese journalists should not be executed, RSF says
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for non-execution of the international warrant for the arrest of two Togolese journalists that a Togolese court issued after convicting them in absentia of “contempt of authority.”
The court issued the international warrant for the arrest of Ferdinand Ayité, the publisher of the biweekly newspaper and website L'Alternative, and Isidore Kouwonou, its editor, after sentencing them in absentia on 15 March to three years in prison and a fine of 3 million CFA francs (4,500 euros) on charges of “contempt of authority” and “spreading mendacious comments on social media.”
Ayité was initially charged with defamation and “contempt of authority” in December 2021 along with Fraternité newspaper publisher Joël Egah (who died on 6 March 2022), after two government ministers filed complaints against them over a Kouwonou-hosted news programme broadcast online by L’Alternative in which they said the ministers were involved in embezzling public funds. Ayité and Egah were detained for two weeks and then released under judicial control. Kouwonou was placed directly under judicial control without being arrested first.
Ferdinand Ayité and Isidore Kouwonou were forced to flee their country for safety reasons, after repeatedly being arrested, intimidated and spied on by the authorities, and now they have been given prison sentences. We condemn this arbitrary decision and we call for non-execution of the international warrant issued for their arrest.
After Ayité and Kouwonou received a summons on 1 March notifying them that their trial would begin on 8 March, Ayité was briefly detained at the border between Togo and Benin on 4 March, when he was interrogated and, for a few moments, deprived of his passport. Knowing he would be arrested the next day, he “found a refuge and then left Togo a few days later,” according to a statement issued by L’Alternative. Kouwonou took similar action and is now in a safe location.
A respected investigative reporter who is critical of Togo’s government, Ayité has often been subjected to intimidation and was on a 2021 list of journalists that an international investigation identified as potential or actual victims of Pegasus spyware surveillance by their governments.
Ayité regards the prison sentences as a clear message to all of Togo’s media. “I fear that other independent media outlets will suffer the same fate in the near future,” he told RSF. “It is clear that the government, which is becoming more authoritarian by the day, no longer wants any dissent in Togo.”
The court’s decision was described as “iniquitous” by L'Alternative. It is “the latest chapter in the long persecution of independent journalists who are just doing their job by investigating the hidden aspects of the scandalous way this country is governed,” the outlet said.
L'Alternative was suspended for four months in February 2021 in response to a complaint by a government minister, and for two months in March 2020 in response to a complaint by the French ambassador. That same year, Ayité and his publication were fined 4 million CFA francs (6,000 euros) after exposing large-scale embezzlement in connection with fuel imports into Togo, a case dubbed Petrolgate.