Togolese authorities expel French journalist, restrict accreditation for upcoming elections

A Lomé court has handed down a six-month suspended prison sentence to Thomas Pierre Dietrich, special correspondent for the Afrique XXL TV channel. Dietrich has also been expelled from the country and banned from re-entering.

The Frenchman is accused of illegally entering Togolese territory for the purpose of carrying out subversive activities. He was arrested by the national police on April 15, 2024 and transferred to the Brigade de Recherches et d’Investigations, where a judicial investigation was opened for “illegal entry into the territory”, in breach of article 554 of the new penal code.

The journalist was held in police custody for 24 hours before being arraigned at the Lomé public prosecutor’s office on April 17, 2024. The criminal court convicted him of illegal entry and imposed a 6-month suspended prison sentence. He was also banned from entering the country for five years, and immediately deported to the eastern border with neighboring Benin.

The journalist travelled to Lomé to cover political news and protests over Togo’s new constitution. His application for an e-visa was approved, and his passport was sealed at the Benin border on arrival, on April 13. The journalist went to the office of the Haute Autorité de l’audiovisuel et de la communication (HAAC), the country’s media regulatory body, two days later to obtain accreditation. He was refused accreditation on the grounds that he should also have obtained it with his visa application. Outside the HAC building, some individuals in gloves, believed to be security agents, picked him up and threw him into a van, before handing him over to the police.

On the same day Dietrich was arrested, the HAAC temporarily suspended the issuance of accreditations for coverage of the upcoming April 29, 2024 elections. Without providing too many details on the specific problems encountered, the HAAC indicated that this decision followed problems linked to Thomas Pierre Dietrich, correspondent for the channel Afrique XXl.

The suspension comes after Dietrich sharply criticized Faure Gnassingbé’s regime in a video posted on X (Twitter) on April 14, 2024. He also expressed his intention to investigate relations between France and Togo, referring to cases such as Vincent Bolloré’s concession of the autonomous port of Lomé.

Furthermore, on April 11, the Ministry of Security and Civil Protection announced that it had temporarily suspended the issuance of “express mode” visas for entry into Togo, raising concerns about potential restrictive measures for foreign journalists and election observer organisations.

The HAAC said its decision follows “serious shortcomings in RFI and France 24’s recent coverage of Togo’s political news”, although the specific content in question was not stated.

These measures come against a backdrop of political tensions and demonstrations, highlighting persistent challenges to press freedom and freedom of expression.

Meanwhile, the government has declared illegal the three-day demonstrations that were planned for April 18, 2024 to protest against the arrest of opposition figures and new legislation abolishing presidential elections. The Ministries of the Interior and Security claimed that the demonstrations would seriously disrupt public order.

These moves follow the arrest of nine opposition activists on April 3, 2024 for taking part in a campaign against a new constitution adopted by the National Assembly. The new constitution extends the presidential term by one year, from 5 to 6, while limiting the number of terms to one and introducing a parliamentary system as opposed to a presidential one.

The change has been strongly criticised by the Togolese opposition and clergy, who see it as an attempt to extend President Faure Gnassingbé’s term of office, as it gives Parliament the power to choose the president.

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) condemns the politically-motivated detention and subsequent expulsion of journalist Dietrich amidst efforts to restrict coverage of the upcoming elections. We equally deplore the arrest of protesters which is based on a ban on street demonstrations since 2022. The prohibition is a violation of the right to peaceful assembly and an affront to Article 30 of Togo’s constitution which guarantees the right of association, assembly and peaceful demonstration.

The MFWA urges the Togolese government to respect freedom of expression and press freedom and allow both the local and international media to do their work without any undue interference before, during and after the elections.

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