A reporter and producer for the Bénin Web TV news website, Ignace Sossou has spent more than four months in a Cotonou prison. He was convicted in December of “harassment by means of electronic communications” for tweeting statements that a prosecutor made at a workshop on disinformation that both Sossou and the prosecutor attended. A video that RSF released last month proved Sossou’s innocence. By presenting the texts of his tweets together with the audio recordings of the prosecutor’s statements, it showed that Sossou quoted the prosecutor accurately and that his tweets could not in any way be construed as harassment. Furthermore, he clearly served the public interest by reporting what the prosecutor said.
“This journalist should never have been in prison,” said Assane Diagne, the director of RSF’s West Africa office. “He was tried under a law, the Digital Code, which is quite different from the much more protective law that regulates the media, although the actions for which he was tried were quite unambiguously of a journalistic nature.”
Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk, added: “The three tweets simply reported statements of a public interest nature and in no way constituted defamation, less still harassment. As the proof of this journalist’s innocence has long been public, we count on the Beninese judicial system to free him without delay so that he is no longer West Africa’s first journalist to be jailed for accurately reporting statements on social media.”
This new appeal for Sossou’s release is being made jointly by several organizations including RSF and the Norbert Zongo Investigative Journalism Cell in West Africa (CENOZO), with which Sossou and the Committee to Protect Journalists work.
There has been concern throughout the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the entire region that Sossou’s conviction could set an extremely dangerous precedent for the freedom to inform. RSF joined more than 120 media outlets and journalists in West Africa on 13 March in publishing an unprecedented joint op-ed 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. It pointed out that, under article 16 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, everyone, including detainees, have “the right to enjoy the best attainable state of physical and mental health,” and that, according to the WHO, people in prison are “likely to be more vulnerable to the Covid-19 disease than the general population.” Benin confirmed its first Covid-19 case in March, Reuters said.
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 the 2020 World Press Freedom Index – the third biggest fall. It is now ranked 113th out of 180 countries.