The 18-month prison sentence that Ignace Sossou, an investigative reporter for the Bénin Web TV news website, received in December of a charge of “harassment by means of electronic communications” was reduced today to 12 months in prison (six of them suspended) and a fine of 500,000 CFA francs (around 760 euros). Sossou was arrested and convicted for tweeting statements that a prosecutor made at a workshop on disinformation that both Sossou and the prosecutor attended. The appeal court judges who issued today’s decision nonetheless had proof of Sossou’s innocence in the form of a video produced by RSF demonstrating that his tweets quoted the prosecutor accurately and could not in any way be construed as harassment.
“This decision leaves us with mixed feelings,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “After months of intense campaigning, we welcome the fact that this journalist will soon be free. But we continue to condemn an extremely harsh and completely unjustified sentence.” Froger added: “This conviction also sets a dangerous precedent. A journalist who accurately reported information in the public interest has been given a prison sentence in the name of combatting online disinformation. Beninese journalists know they are now exposed to arbitrary persecution. This is an unprecedented and historic step backwards for Benin.”
Sossou and his lawyers now have three days to decide whether to appeal against today’s decision to Benin’s court of cassation.
The concern about Sossou’s conviction and imprisonment has not been limited to Benin. With RSF’s backing, more than 120 media outlets and journalists in West Africa published an unprecedented joint op-ed on 13 March calling for his release.
On 6 April, RSF and more than 80 other organizations sent a joint letter to ten African leaders including Beninese President Patrice Talon urging them to free all detained journalists in order to reduce the danger of their catching the coronavirus in prison.
As a result of arbitrarily jailing a journalist who committed no crime, suspending opposition media and interfering in editorial decisions, Benin fell 17 places in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index – the third biggest fall. It is now ranked 113th out of 180 countries.