By Ryan Aliman
Impunity Watch Reporter, Africa
PORTO-NOVO, Benin – Last Thursday, human rights groups and press organizations demanded the Benin government to release a TV director who was imprisoned for airing a program that criticized President Boni Yayi.
On September 18, 2012, TV station Canal 3 broadcasted a press conference where former Presidential Adviser and Spokesperson Lionel Agbo accused the President of enabling his cabinet members’ corrupt practices.
The following day, President Yayi filed a complaint against the director of Canal 3, Berthe Cakpossa, before the High Authority for Broadcasting and Communication (HAAC), Benin’s media regulatory body. In the complaint, President Yayi denied all of the accusations Agbo made against him, claiming that these were mere fabrications. According to him, by airing the press conference, Canal 3 “disturbed public order” and “undermined national cohesion”. Two months later, the HAAC suspended two of the TV station’s programs: “Actu matin” and “Arbre à Palabre” for two weeks and three months, respectively.
On January 16, a Cotonou court found Cakpossa guilty of “offending the head of state”, sentencing the director to three months in prison with hard labor. Cakpossa was also ordered to pay a fine of 500,000 francs CFA (US$1,000), and symbolic damages of 1 franc CFA. In its decision, the Cotonou court cited the country’s 1997 press law which states that journalists are considered the author of third-party statements they report.
Agbo was likewise arrested for the same charges.
According to Cakpossa’s lawyer, Claret Dedie, they recently appealed the court’s decision which they hope will suspend the execution of the sentence. In an interview with the local news, Dedie said that she was surprised to learn about her client’s arrest since prison terms of less than six months do not require immediate incarceration in Benin. She also found it peculiar that out of all the cases filed against Cakpossa in connection with the controversial broadcast, Cakpossa had been convicted only in the case in which the complainant was the President.
“President Yayi retaliated against a journalist who conveyed a message he did not like and then pressured the courts to impose his will. He is sending a message that his government is off-limits to critical scrutiny,” noted Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) Coordinator Mohamed Keita. “We call on the appeals court to overturn this verdict, which is a stain on Benin’s image as a free, democratic nation.”
Other human rights and media organizations such as the Media Foundation for West Africa (MWFA), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), and the Union of Media Professionals of Benin (UPMB) have joined the CPJ in urging the appeals court to set Cakpossa free.
For further information, please see:
Horn Portal – Benin TV chief jailed for program slamming presidential palace – 26 January 2013
Spy Ghana – Berthe Cakpossa sentence was illegally motivated by the Benin government – William Gomes – 26 January 2013
IFEX – TV station director sentenced to hard labour in Benin – 25 January 2013
Committee to Protect Journalists – Benin TV director convicted for offending president – 24 January 2013