Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-TOGO: Minister Believes Quantity Equals Quality

Noel Kokou Tadegnon

LOME, May 12 2004 (IPS) - Dozens of newspapers, scores of radio stations and five television channels…At first glance, Togo seems like a media junkie’s dream destination. But does being spoilt for choice translate into press freedom?

This question has received an airing in recent days, thanks to a report by the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontieres – RSF), and the response it drew from Togolese Communication Minister Pitang Tchalla.

In the report, issued to coincide with World Press Freedom Day (May 3), RSF claims that the Togolese government continued its attacks against the independent media in 2003.

“Gnassingbé Eyadéma is sub-Saharan Africa’s longest-serving president, but his relations with his country’s press continued to be fraught,” said the report, adding “He did not hesitate to summon journalists to his office to lecture them. Journalists for their part did not hesitate to publish scathing reports about his family, sometimes at the expense of professional ethics.”

One such case involved Tropik FM, a privately-owned radio station based in the capital, Lome, which angered authorities after allowing government critics to air their views during a programme called ‘Political and Civic Forum’.

According to RSF, “Station manager Albert Biki Tchékin was called to the president’s residence and was accused by Eyadéma of letting the opposition insult his government.”

Tropik was shut down for about two weeks from Feb. 28 2003 – but allowed back on air after being warned to avoid the kind of statements that had resulted in its closure.

Tchalla airily dismisses these claims. “Togo is unconcerned by the Reporters Without Borders’ report, because the situation it describes is a thing of the past,” he said on May 3 during a speech to mark World Press Freedom Day. “The proof is that there is not one journalist in prison – and the fact that all journalists can freely practice their profession in Togo.”

“If you look at the profusion of publicly and privately-owned newspapers, radio stations, and television stations, you can see that the freedom is there,” he added.

But, Tchalla’s willingness to equate a diversity of media outlets with press freedom is not shared by all.

Daniel Lawson-Drackey, an editorial writer at another privately-owned station, Nana FM, says “To shout from the rooftops that there are more than 200 newspapers, 50 radio stations, and five television stations in Togo – and then quickly conclude that that’s proof of freedom of expression in this country is a purely theoretical viewpoint.” Lawson-Drackey is also a former secretary-general of the Union of Independent Journalists of Togo (UJIT).

“Restrictions of a sociopolitical and legal nature affect freedom of the press in Togo,” Lawson-Drackey told IPS.

Media freedom is guaranteed by Togo’s constitution, but the Press and Communications Code, adopted in 2002, undermines this principle. The code, which is presently being revised, imposes prison terms and fines on any journalist found guilty of defaming the military or government authorities.

Tchalla’s statements also appear to gloss over the plight of journalists Dimas Dzikodo, Colombo Kpakpabia and Philip Evégnon. RSF says the three men were arrested in June last year after attempting to publish photographs that showed apparent police brutality. Officials claimed the shots were actually of road accident victims.

Dzikodo and Kpakpabia were reportedly abused by police during their detention, and Dzikodo is said to have been the target of continued harassment after his release.

An additional three journalists were detained last year by officials and what RSF describes as “armed civilians claiming to be gendarmes”. However, publishers Julien Ayi and Sylvestre Djahlin Nicoué were also released in 2003.

Francis Pedro Amunzou, President of the Togolese Media Observatory (OTM), says several outlets have antagonized the public in recent months by publishing false information. OTM is a self-regulatory body for the media.

“In Togo, the broadcast of false information is a favorite sport of journalists,” he said in an interview, adding “The Togolese press sees corruption everywhere.”

One notable instance of alleged misreporting concerns Innocent Sossou, a journalist for the Togolese weekly ‘Le Carrefour’ (The Crossroads). He allegedly told RSF on Apr. 22 last year that he had received death threats after publishing an article critical of Eyadema’s government.

A day later, the media watchdog issued a press release condemning the threats. However, Sossou later published a retraction in which he denied having been threatened.

“RSF’s press release was politically motivated,” Sossou said.

John Zodzi, RSF’s representative in Togo, said he was surprised by the apparent about face. “He harassed me with this story until I contacted my bosses in Paris. They called him by telephone and he confirmed that he had been threatened,” Zodzi told IPS.

Various explanations have been put forward about the real sequence of events last April. These range from claims that Sossou was bribed by officials eager to discredit RSF to the more sympathetic view that he was intimidated into changing his statement. IPS was unable to get comment on the matter from the writer himself.

Abass Issaka, an organizer for UJIT, said in an interview that the grouping was trying its best to get journalists to “respect professional ethics…constantly offering training seminars on the subject."

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