On March 15, 2023, a court in Lomé, the capital of Togo, sentenced two journalists, Ferdinand Ayite and Isidore Kouwonou, the director of publication and editor-in-chief, respectively, of the newspaper Alternative to three years in prison, including a fine equivalent to about 4,700 euros.
The case dates back to November 2021 and relates to a program broadcast on YouTube called ‘’L’Autre journal’’, where Ayite, Kouwonou, and a third journalist, Joel Egah (who died a few months later, on March 6, 2022), spoke critically of two ministers in the administration of President Faure Gnassingbe-led administration, including suggestions of possible corruption.
The ministers then lodged complaints against the journalist for contempt of authority. Ayite and Egah were arrested and detained on December 10, 2021, and released on December 31, 2021.
The journalists were accused of contempt of authorities over a comment involving two ministers, namely, Kodzo Adedze in charge of the trade ministry and his colleague of justice, Pius Agbetomey. Both lodged complaints of defamation against the trio following the broadcasting of the program on YouTube.
Unlike Ayite and Egah, Isidore Kouwonou was not detained but placed under judicial control and banned from traveling out of the country at the time the other two were in detention.
While many thought the case might end there, after the journalists officially apologized for the inconvenience during another broadcasted program and also following the death of Egah. But after Ayite and Kowounou discussed in the media the alleged mismanagement of Covid funds by the government, both received notice to attend a court hearing.
The authorities’ decision to revive the court case involving the two journalists was a signal that any criticism of the government’s public management will not be tolerated.
Despite Togo having decriminalized press libel, Ayite and Kouwonou were sentenced to three years in prison under the country’s criminal code – as the press code does not recognize YouTube as a means of press communication. Both journalists had already gone into hiding and were sentenced in absentia. Togolese authorities issued an international arrest warrant against the duo.
However, the legal counsel of the journalists, on March 20, 2023, lodged an appeal against the court decision.
The heavy sentence imposed not only sends a chilling message to other critical journalists, but it also undermines the press freedom situation in the country, which is seeing increasing levels of self-censorship.
Recently, on February 1, 2023, two newspapers were suspended from publication by the state media regulatory body, while on February 13, 2023, Isidore Akollor and Jerome Sossou, director of publication Journal Actu Express and Triangle des Enjeux, respectively, were summoned before a court over allegation of defamation complaint lodged against them by Baby Amorin.
“The sentencing of Ferdinand Ayite and Isidore Kouwonou for their criticism of the government and government ministers raises serious concerns about press freedom in Togo and the authorities’ lack of tolerance for critical journalism”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen. “Journalists should not be jailed for doing their constitutionally protected work of reporting or commenting on issues of public interest. We call on the courts to overturn this sentence and we urge authorities to strengthen the right of journalists to report without fear of arrest, legal prosecution, and imprisonment.”