Benin’s authorities must overturn investigative journalist Ignace Sossou’s 18-month prison sentence, eight civil society organizations said today, on the eve of his appeal hearing tomorrow in the capital Cotonou.
Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Africtivistes (the Pan-African Network of Bloggers and Web Activists) and five other organizations regard Sossou’s detention since 20 December as arbitrary and as a violation of his right to free speech
“By detaining Ignace Sossou, who simply reported a judicial official’s public statements, the Beninese authorities are just confirming their desire to put unjustified pressure on journalists and media freedom.” said Samira Daoud, Amnesty International’s regional director for West and Central Africa.
“Ignace Sossou is unjustly detained, and this constitutes a flagrant violation of his right to freedom of expression. Journalists must be protected by their government, not criminalized. This appeal hearing must be regarded as an opportunity to carry out his immediate and unconditional release.”
Sossou committed his alleged offence at a workshop on fake news during elections that the French media development agency, Canal France International (CFI), organized in Cotonou on 18 December 2019. Sossou and the Cotonou public prosecutor were among the participants.
In his address to the workshop, the prosecutor described Benin’s Digital Communication Law as a “weapon” that could be used against journalists. He also commented on the government’s decision to disconnect the Internet during the April 2019 parliamentary elections. Sossou reported these comments on Twitter and Facebook as soon as they were made.
The prosecutor filed a complaint against Sossou, claiming that his comments has been taken out of context, with the result that Sossou was arrested without a warrant on 20 December by members of the Central Office for Combatting Cyber-Crime (OCRC) supported by officers from the police station in the Cotonou suburb of Godomey.
In a trial held four days later, a court sentenced Sossou to 18 months in prison and a fine of 200,000 CFA francs (300 euros) on a charge of “harassment by means of electronic communication.” Sossou, who had acknowledged being the author of the tweets but denied harassing the prosecutor, was jailed in Cotonou’s main prison.
“This is the first time that a journalist in an ECOWAS member country has been given a prison sentence for correctly reporting comments that were actually made,” said Assane Diagne, the head of RSF’s West Africa bureau.“This sets an extremely dangerous precedent. If Ignace Sossou is not acquitted on appeal and quickly released, it would mean that any journalist working in Benin could henceforth be imprisoned for accurately reporting statements.”
Benin boasts of its three decades as a “robust democracy” that promotes free speech and holds free and fair elections followed by peaceful handovers, but the signatories of this press release are concerned about the wave of arbitrary arrests of political activists and journalists, and the crackdown on peaceful demonstrations, which have reached an alarming level.
In the space of less than two years, at least 17 journalists, bloggers and political activists have been prosecuted under the Digital Communication Law, some of whose draconian provisions violate free speech and press freedom. Benin is ranked 96th out of 180 countries in RSF’s latest World Press Freedom Index, after falling 18 places in the past two years.
On 19 February, on the 30th anniversary of Benin’s national conference, President Patrice Talon referred to those prosecuted under the Digital Communication Law. He said those who decide to violate the republic’s laws should be ready to be held to account for their actions In court.
“All the Digital Communication Law has done is create a climate of repression and restrict the right to freedom of expression in Benin,” Africtivistes president Cheikh Fall said.
“No blogger or journalist should go to prison simply for doing their job. The authorities must amend this law’s draconian provisions and bring it into line with international standards on freedom of expression, above all by decriminalizing press offences including online ones.”
Canal France International (CFI), which organized the 18 December workshop, initially wrote in a letter that it “clearly distances itself from these Facebook posts and practices of this kind, which are completely lacking in professional ethics and give journalism a bad name.”
But CFI subsequently sanctioned those responsible for the letter, acknowledging an “internal error with regard to this matter,” and called for Ignace Sossou to be released without delay because his posts were “not in any way defamatory.”
- Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
- Amnesty International
- Pan-African Network of Bloggers and Web Activists (Africtivistes)
- Benin Bloggers Association
- Citizen Platform 229
- Citizen Voice and Action
- Burkina Faso Bloggers Network
- Bloggers Association for Active Citizenship - Niger