DAKAR — Togo's Constitutional Court has rejected an amendment to a media law that would have given a state regulator authority to shut down media outlets without a court order. Despite this promising win for local journalists, international watchdog groups say press freedom in Togo continues to decline.
Freedom of the press is legally guaranteed in Togo. International watchdog groups say, however, that these rights are often ignored by the government, and that many journalists work in a stifled - and sometimes violent - media environment.
Mohamed Keita, Africa Advocacy Coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said Togo’s state-run media regulatory agency was originally created as an independent body to protect the rights of the media. But, he says the High Authority of Broadcasting and Communications (HAAC) has since become a censorship tool for the government.
“It has been a consistent pattern for a number of years now where journalists [in Togo] are constantly targeted, especially frontline journalists covering demonstrations," said Keita. "Also, for a number of years now, the media regulatory agency has at times used its power to down certain radio stations or even ban certain critical journalists from the airwaves because of their critical commentary.”
Keita said there have been many instances of media outlets being shut down for vague reasons and there are often allegations of security forces attacking and imprisoning journalists without cause.
Injuries among journalists
Most recently, there were reports of three journalists being injured by security forces during a peaceful demonstration on March 14. The journalists were protesting what they considered to be a “repressive” amendment to a media law, in which the government gave the HAAC sweeping powers to withdraw licenses, shut down publications and confiscate equipment without a court order.
Keita said that, in such cases, security forces are usually not punished.
“We see this pattern that continues where journalists are consistently injured or beaten up by members of the security forces and no one is ever held to account," he said. "So this impunity afforded to members of the security forces continues to encourage, we believe, this type of behavior.”
But not everyone thinks press freedom is a problem in Togo.
Jacques Djakouti, President of Togo’s National Council of Media Managers, said it is true that journalists do their work freely.
"We have a variety of radio stations, newspapers, and television stations. People can express their ideas and engage in debates in the media," he said. "Yes, sometimes, some of our colleagues have been implicated for their work. But these things are always worked out. The laws protect them. Press freedom in Togo is not in any danger."
Agustin Amegan works for the SOS Association for Journalists in Danger in Togo, and is the director of a local newspaper, Canard Independent. He said that in theory, freedom of the press does exist in Togo.
"People have the right to say what they wish and there is much diversity in media outlets," he said. "But in reality there also exists authorities who stifle these freedoms. Many times, the fear of punishment influences what journalists publish and say."
A step toward improving press freedom was taken last week, when the Constitutional Court repealed the amendment that gave the HAAC sweeping powers.
Keita said the National Assembly must now return to the drawing board and draft a new law.