The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) condemns the high-handed sentencing of journalists Ferdinand Ayité and Isidore Kouwonou to jail by a court in Lomé and urges the Togolese authorities to show more tolerance toward critical journalism.
On March 15, 2023, the High Court of Lomé sentenced the two journalists who are Director of Publication and Editor-in-Chief, respectively of the biweekly L’Alternative, to three years in prison each. The court also convicted the two to a fine of 3 million CFA Francs (about $5000).
Even a deceased publisher of the private newspaper, Joel Egah, who was also being tried along with the two was sentenced to prison posthumously!
The beginning of this worrying judgment dates back to 2021. On December 9, national police officers arrested Mr. Ayité, after he responded to a summon from the Brigade de recherche et d’investigation (BIR), an intelligence and investigative arm of the police. He was questioned and taken into custody over allegations that while participating in a debate on YouTube, he teased two ministers over claims they have become pastors and allegedly also linked them to embezzlement. This is in spite of the fact that in the said debate the journalists did not mention any names.
On December 10, 2021, it was the turn of Egah. He was charged with defamation and contempt of authority as Mr. Ayité, was placed in detention, while Kouwonou, accused of complicity, was released but placed under judicial supervision.
The charges were brought against the journalists by the Minister of Commerce, Kodzo Adedze, and the Minister of Justice, Pius Agbetomey. Both had filed a complaint of defamation, following the broadcast of the programme “L’Autre Journal” on YouTube. The programme was hosted by Isidore Kouwonou, with Ferdinand Ayité and Joel Egah participating as panelists.
Mr. Egah died on March 6, 2022, a few days after his release from detention in connection with the case. As a result, only Ferdinand Ayité and Isidore Kouwonou were expected in court on March 15, 2023, (one year later). They did not appear.
According to reliable sources, the two journalists, fearing that they will not be given justice, are hiding or have fled the country.
On March 4, Ferdinand Ayité was apprehended at the border between Togo and Benin. He was interrogated by immigration officials and taken to the Central Criminal Investigation and Research Service (SCRIC) of the Togolese gendarmerie before being released.
Meanwhile, journalist organizations have lamented that the press is being intimidated in Togo.
The management of the newspaper l’Alternative informed the general public that the media would cease its publication until further notice, and that it would explore alternative ways to continue publishing.
The MFWA expresses its solidarity with the persecuted journalists and calls on the Togolese authorities to put an end to the witch hunt.