Togo’s New Legislation Stifles Press Freedom?
AFRICA SERIES : PART 9
While traditional journalism practice is making way for all new multimedia and citizen journalism and opening new era of information availability and access, Togolese are still being denied and deprived of access to information.
“We are faced with the state systematic clampdown of press freedom. With the new legislation passed by Parliament, press freedom in Togo is highly under threat,” said Elias, who did not want to use his real name for security reasons, a senior journalist working with a state media in the capital city of Lome. He is not happy with the frequent interferences by the government in the media work but is compelled to work along the state directives for fear of intimidation.
“The pre-elections reporting in Togo is getting increasingly complicated and dangerous and with the new law there are speculations going around that the government plans to prevent the media from covering details on the pending elections,” he said.
According to him, media censorship is the biggest challenge inhibiting the development of press freedom and media proliferation in Togo. “The government knows the degree of media power and will not liberate media activities,” he said.
Upon the government’s request, the parliament recently passed the law that empowers it to revoke, suspend or withdraw licenses of media houses whose activities are deemed to be, as defined by the state, “dangerous to national security and unity” or contain “serious errors”.
Elias is worried about the dangers of being a reporter in modern Togo under the new law and believes that the law is not there to regulate but to scare reporters from doing their job. “This law is unfortunate. I don’t know why the president allowed that bill to be drafted in the first place. We were all thinking the bad old days were gone forever,” he said.
“The definition of ‘serious error’ as contained in the new law regulating the media programmes and publications can only be determined by the state. Press freedom is at risk and needs international intervention to reverse the ‘killer law’,” Elias said, tears beginning to drop from his eyes.
With a population of about six million people, Togo still records unimaginable human rights abuses, corruption, insecurity, political harassment and intimidation. Media outlet closures are also frequent activities. “Both local and international journalists and media representatives often fall victims to security brutality,” Elias said.
He alleges that the government controls editorial policies of state-run media to some extent, leaving them no option but to broadcast or print what the government would want to hear or read.
“We cannot pretend that all is well with the media landscape in Togo when we are controlled and told what to write and publish,” Elias said.
In October this year, 2011, members of parliament passed a new legislation that empowers the government to seize equipment, suspend and even organise hearings against media professionals that make what the government described described as “serious errors”.
Though the bill was condemned by media rights activists who described it as an attempt to suffocate press freedom, the government forced the bill through.
“It is now a law bidding we have to manage through it,” Elias said. “The danger is that journalists will not be able to determine what makes up ‘serious errors’ as contained in the law. Only the government defines and interprets what’s a ‘serious error’ and where it applies.”
Many Togolese, and particularly the opposition, say the law is part of the ruling party’s effort to deter press from covering presidential election lapses.
Early this year, Togolese authorities shut down four radio and TV stations under the claim the stations were indebted to Togo’s High Audiovisual and Communication Authority. But Peter Dogbe, director of Nana FM – one of the stations that was closed – said, “We were accused of using Nana FM to promote ethnic division and hatred.”
Political commentator Ebo Ali described the current media landscape in Togo as “unsafe” because of the constant and frequent attempts by the authorities to censor press freedom. “It is very likely that the new law will be abused before, during and after the presidential elections,” he said.
Frustrated by security threats and brutalities, Togolese journalists mostly private press took to the street to protest against brutality meted out to their members by personnel of National intelligence Agency (NIA) and the government.
Addressing journalists during a protest march in Lome, Francis Pedro Amuzu from Togolese organisation SOS Journalists in Danger said:
“We condemn the guilty silence of the international community. There are too many blunders in Togo. This prevents freedom of expression. Enough is enough. The Togolese people have suffered too much. It cannot continue to lose by his son who are only the quest for freedom. We do not want those who are supposed to become our secure assassins”.
Ibrahim Kodjo, a social commentator in Togo, believes the new law is part of the government’s strategy to have total control of the media. He said: “The Authority, after warnings and recommendations, can stop a programme, radio or television, or hang the edition of a newspaper for a fortnight, at least. The law can be abused”. This makes it particularly difficult for opposition parties whose voices can be easily shut by the current government.
Togolese journalists believe the new law is a threat to press freedom in the country, and a big step backwards for the young democracy. It is time to wake up, they say, and fight for that fundamental human right, freedom of speech.