Reporters Without Borders welcomed reforms passed by Togo’s National Assembly amending the press and communications law so that press offences can no longer be punished by terms of imprisonment.
At an extraordinary session on 24 August, the parliament unanimously adopted reforms of the 25 September 2002 law previously considered one of the most repressive in Africa. Thirty-four of its 112 articles were amended and four repealed.
The greatest reform abolishing prison sentences for press offences such as defamation and insult, however left in place heavy fines up to five million CFA francs (around 9000 dollars).
Nevertheless the new law is much more liberal and respecting of press freedom than its predecessor.
"Even if the authorities in Togo have taken this step solely under pressure from the European Union, we welcome this reform of the press code that will bring hope to every journalist in the country," said Reporters Without Borders.
"We will however remain vigilant and wait to see how the law is applied. In fact prison sentences are still in place in cases of journalists found guilty of calls to theft, murder, racial hatred or subverting the security forces from "their duty to their country".
If the judges applied a broad interpretation of these notions, it was to be feared that some journalists who were too critical or provocative could still find themselves victims of unfair imprisonment," the organisation added.
Reform of the press and communication law was among the commitments Togo’s government made in Brussels on 14 April 2004 with a view to resumption of co-operation between Togo and the European Union, broken off in 1993 because of democratic failings.
Communications Minister, Pitang Tchalla, on 28 April set up an 11-member reform commission drawn from journalists’ organisations and unions, the communications ministry, the Togolese media observatory and the broadcast and communications authority. The new law passed by Togo’s deputies almost exactly mirrors the results of their work.
A second welcome feature of the new law is the repeal of all articles allowing the interior minister to takes steps by edict involving seizures or closure of newspapers, which gave rise to many abuses in the past. This role now passes to the republic’s chief prosecutor, who will also have to justify any decisions in advance.
One article in the draft law was intensively debated. Article 104, abolishing the use of detention in custody for press offences, was withdrawn during its passage through the council of ministers on 21 July then reinstated after lengthy negotiations before the law commission on 6 August.