Togolese authorities should drop all legal proceedings against journalists Ferdinand Ayité and Isidore Kouwonou and allow them to work free from harassment or threat of arrest, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Monday.
Both journalists have been summoned to the country’s High Court in the capital city of Lomé for a trial beginning on Wednesday, March 8, according to news reports, court documents reviewed by CPJ, and the journalists’ lawyer Elom Kpade, who spoke to CPJ by phone.
Authorities allege that Ayité, publication director of the privately owned L’Alternative newspaper, insulted public authorities in the outlet’s reporting, and that Kouwonou, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, assisted in that alleged offense.
The court documents cite sections of Togo’s penal code relating to criminal insult, punishable with up to two years in prison and a fine of 1 million West African francs (US$1,619); distributing false news, which carries up to two years and a fine of 2 million francs (US$3,238); and authoring false news, which carries up to three years and a fine of 3 million francs (US$4,858).
“Togolese authorities should immediately cease their legal harassment of journalists Ferdinand Ayité and Isidore Kouwonou and allow them to work freely,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, in New York. “Journalistic commentary on issues of public interest should never be criminalized, and the summonses issued to these journalists should be scrapped at once.”
The case stems from an online broadcast by L’Alternative in late 2021, which Ayité and journalist Joel Egah discussed corruption allegations involving two government ministers and accusations that they had manipulated the public, according to those news reports. Egah died from a heart attack in March 2022.
In December 2021, police arrested Ayité and Egah over that broadcast; Kouwonou was also summoned by police that month.
The court documents allege that both Ayité and Kouwonou published and distributed “false news” on social media that was liable to “disrupt public peace.”
Section 172 of Togo’s press code says that offenses involving journalists should be handled by the communication regulator, but Section 156 says that journalists who “used social networks as a means of communication” to commit such offenses are instead “punished in accordance with the common law provisions.”
CPJ called prosecutor Mawama Talaka for comment, but no one answered.