Togolese investigative journalist Ferdinand Ayite, has been sentenced by a magistrate court in Lomé to pay a fine of 4 million CFA Franc ($7,187) after he was sued for defamation following an article, he wrote exposing corruption in the petroleum sector.
Ayite who is the director of publication of the Alternative newspaper revealed in his piece that the chair of the Petroleum Product Price Fluctuation Monitoring Committee (CSFPP), Francis Sossah Adjakli, and his son Fabrice Afatsawo Adjakli teamed up with a Swiss trading company to defraud the Togolese government to the tune of 400 to 500 billion CFA Francs.
He was sued by the Adjakli family for defamation and was fined by the court on November 04, 2020 despite an audit on the case establishing that the Adjakly family and officials of the Ministry of Commerce, including former ministers were involved in the embezzlement of public funds.
The MFWA finds the fine imposed on Ayité and his newspaper unfortunate. The organisation considers the move by the court hostile to the independence of the media in Togo. Even more disturbing, is the likelihood of this paralysing the press and resulting in self-censorship. It also compromises the viability of the media in a period of COVID-19 pandemic.
Many local Togolese press advocacy organisations, including the Union of Independent Journalists of Togo (UJIT), MFWA’s partner organisation, condemned the court’s verdict as “contrary to freedom of information in Togo” in a statement.
Ayite’s case is not an isolated incident. On 23 March 2020, the High Authority for Audiovisual and Communication (HAAC), Togo’s media regulatory body, suspended L’Alternative for two months and another privately-owned press Liberté for 15 days for their critical publications on French diplomats in the country. Following these sanctions, another newspaper, Fraternité, criticised the regulator’s decision as “overzealous”. In response to this criticism, HAAC suspended the weekly Fraternité for two months on 30 March.
Ayite and his counsel, intend to appeal the decision of the court. The MFWA therefore appeals to the justice authorities to quash this inimical decision to the press, taking into account the important role of an independent press in the demand for transparency, good governance and accountability which are essential for a country’s development.