Mixed FOE Results in West Africa: 3 Violations, 2 Redress Actions Recorded in December 2019

Three freedom of expression violations were recorded in Nigeria and Benin in a relatively quiet December 2019 in West Africa, where two journalists were arrested and detained and a media house shut down, while a political activist imprisoned for organising anti-government protests was released.

In what was widely condemned as a dangerous precedent, security forces disrupted court proceedings in Abuja, Nigeria and arrested a journalist and political activist who was standing trial.

Heavily armed men of the Department of State Services (DSS) stormed the courtroom and re-arrested Omoyele Sowore in the morning of December 6, a day after the Federal High Court in Abuja had ordered them (DSS) to release the journalist who had been in the custody of the security agency for 124 days.  Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu had also imposed a fine of 100,000 naira ($278) on the DSS for flouting earlier court orders to free the journalist who had been granted bail.

Scenes from the Federal High Court in Abuja, Nigeria when security personnel were re-arresting Nigerian activist Omoyele Sowore. Source: REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

The Sahara Reporters’ publisher was arrested on August 3 for calling for mass protests against the government under his #RevolutionNowCampaign. He was accused of treason, terrorism and money laundering.

On December 24, a court in Benin sentenced an investigative journalist to 18 months in prison and a fine of 200,000 CFA francs (USD400) for a post on social media.

Ignace Sossou, who works for Web TV, was found guilty of “harassment through electronic means of communication” after Benin’s Public Prosecutor, Mario Metonou, complained that the journalist’s social media posts had misquoted him and taken his statements out of context.

The journalist was arrested at his home by officials of the Central Office for the Suppression of Cybercrime and detained on December 20, a day after he made the posts.

Still in Benin, the media regulator, Haute autorite de l’audiovisuel et de la communication (HAAC), on December 17, closed down a private radio station owned by a leading opposition politician for failure to renew its licence.

The Management of the station later explained that in August 2019, they submitted an application signed by the Manager, Jerome Kassa, to the HAAC to renew their operating licence which was due to expire in December 2019. The HAAC insisted that no other person can sign documents to renew a license which was issued in the name of Sebastien Ajavon, the owner of the station and opposition politician now living in exile in France.

December was, however, a month of mixed fortunes as two important redress incidents were also recorded. On December 24 2019, Omoleye Sowore, who had been detained since August 3, 2019, was released on the orders of Nigeria’s Attorney General, Abubakar Malami. The Christmas eve gesture also benefitted Samobo Dasuki, a former National Security Advisor who had been detained on corruption charges since 2015.

In another progressive development, a journalist who works for Adom FM in Accra secured a symbolic legal victory over a political party activist who assaulted her. The presiding judge, Gifty Adjei Addo, on December 2, awarded a cost of GH¢9,000 (about US$1,600) against Hajia Fati, a member of the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) in Ghana for assaulting the journalist, Ohemaa Sakyiwaa of Accra-based Adom FM.

The suit followed a violent attack on Sakyiwaa by Hajia Fati at the party’s Headquarters in Accra where she had gone to cover an event on May 4, 2018. The assailant also destroyed the journalist’s mobile phone.

The fifteen anniversary of the killing of journalist Deyda Hydara fell on December 16, and the MFWA used the occasion to call for justice for the family of the former editor of the Point newspaper in The Gambia.

“If the killers suffer no consequences, they and future perpetrators will not be dissuaded,” the MFWA said in a statement to mark the day.

On December 29, 2019, Guinea Bissau successfully held its long-delayed presidential round-off polls without any press freedom violations or internet disruption being recorded.

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