Beninois journalist, Ignace Sossou, who has been sentenced to 18 months in prison for reproducing the words of the country’s prosecutor has had his time reduced to 12 months, with half of the term suspended.
The verdict of the Court of Appeal in Cotonou on May 19, 2020, means the journalist, who has already served five months, will have to spend one more month in detention before gaining his freedom on June 24.
Sossou, who works with the online media, Benin Web TV, was sentenced on December 24, 2019 after he posted on Twitter and Facebook part of a speech made by the country’s public prosecutor, Mario Metonou. The complainant accused the journalist of taking his words out of context.
Since Sossou’s imprisonment, several freedom of expression and media rights groups have made unsuccessful appeals to the Beninois government to intervene to get the journalist released.
In February, Sossou’s lawyers filed a complaint about his ongoing detention with the United Nations’ working group on arbitrary detention, according to a report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The lawyers also appealed the conviction in the local court.
On April 28, the day for one of the appeal hearings, the MFWA and seven other press freedom organisations issued a statement calling on the authorities in Benin to release him, especially in view of the risk of being infected with COVID-19 while in prison. A subsequent hearing on May 5, was also adjourned to May 19 when the ruling was made.
On May 3, the MFWA and its national partners sent a petition to the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Access to Information of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR), Lawrence Mute urging him to intervene in the matter to ensure the release of the journalist.
Sossou’s lawyers, Robert Dossou and Brice Hossou, said they were disappointed with the ruling and insisted on the outright release of the journalist.
The MFWA is equally disappointed with the ruling as it appears the authorities are bent on making the journalist serve the jail term for what does not constitute a crime. We had expected that the court of appeal would have acknowledged the wrongful conviction and acquitted the journalist. Having commuted his sentence to 12 months with 6 months suspended sends a chilling message to journalist in Benin that they could potentially be jailed for merely reproducing the words of others, particularly, people in power. The ruling is a bad precedent for future press-related ‘offences’ in the country and a stain on Benin’s freedom of expression landscape.