Reporters Without Borders called on the Togolese government today to reestablish a "constructive dialogue" with the country’s news media, voicing concern about growing tension and about intimidation and forced closures of privately-owned radio stations since President Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s death on 5 February.
"After years of dictatorship, the Togolese media had been enjoying a degree of freedom as a result international pressure but now, in the current confusion, it is crucial that the authorities prove their commitment to press freedom by choosing dialogue over repression," the organization said.
Radio Lumière, a privately-owned radio station based in Aného (a town 45 km east of the capital and near the border with Benin), was closed yesterday on the local prefect’s orders for "inciting hate and violence."
Two gendarmes and their commander went to the station in the morning and confiscated equipment, including its transmitter. Station manager Kossigan Zinsou said the gendarmes, who did not show a warrant, also took his car and destroyed some of the equipment. He told Reporters Without Borders he had gone into hiding.
The president of the Union of Free Radio and Television Stations of Togo (URATEL), Jacques Djakouti, said Radio Lumière was accused of broadcasting a statement by opposition politician Harry Olympio of the Rally for the support of Development and Democracy (RSDD).
The communication ministry said the station had been "calling on the population to take to the streets against the government of Fauré Gnassingbé," referring to the late president’s son, who has taken over as president with the army’s support, in violation of the constitution. Army press officer Capt. Moïse Oyomé Kemence said, "the station has been closed for inciting revolt and hate."
Capt. Kemence issued a warning at a meeting yesterday with radio station executives at the headquarters of the High Council for Broadcasting and Communication (HAAC). "We have noticed that certain stations are playing a very dangerous game with unforeseeable consequences," he said.
"It is not the job of the press to call on the population to take to the streets and practice civil disobedience," Kemence continued. "We have ways of putting a stop to that, we don’t want a Rwanda here or a Radio des Mille Collines," he added, referring to the hate media that encouraged the Rwandan genocide.
Ever since the takeover by President Gnassingbé’s son, a number of privately-owned radio stations in the capital have broadcast phone-in and talk shows in which participants and members of the public have urged the Togolese population to take to the streets "to reestablish constitutional rule."
After Gen. Gnassingbé’s death was announced, the HAAC formally demanded an end to live broadcasts on three privately-owned radio stations based in Lomé, saying they were urging "the population to revolt." Kanal FM manager Modeste Masavusu-Ekué received a call from HAAC president Georges Agbodjan on the afternoon of 7 February asking him to stop broadcasting discussion programmes. A second call ordered him to stop his "Round Table" programme.
Thereafter, Kanal FM carried nothing but music that afternoon. Masavusu-Ekué told Reporters Without Borders he had previously received anonymous telephone threats. He said he understood the HAAC’s decision and he was no longer broadcasting phone-ins. "But we must be allowed to continue round-table discussion programmes that don’t have contributions from outsiders," he said. "It’s fine that they want to have mourning for the president but what happened after he died has forced us to have debates which we cannot refuse our listeners."
The privately-owned Radio Nostalgie received the same instructions the next day. Station editor Joël Gbagba said the HAAC president, Agbodjan, called him in the middle of a broadcast and said "play music." Two armed policemen turned up at the studios at around 2 p.m. asking to see those in charge and those who had presented the debate that was broadcast in the morning.
Journalist Gilles Bocco said the policemen’s attitude became threatening. "You have insulted our chief," one of them said to the staff. "Eyadéma is dead but we are still here. You have incited the people to take to the streets. We will kill them all." After the two policemen left, the journalists noticed "suspicious individuals" hanging around the building, with "Chinese-made motorcycles, like the ones the security forces use."
The HAAC president proposed yesterday that radio stations should broadcast pre-recorded discussion programmes. "When listeners are allowed to phone in, anonymous callers very often use the media to make appeals for tribal hate or revolt against the constitutional authorities," he told radio executives.
Radio France Internationale (RFI) has not been spared. Communication minister and government spokesman Pitang Tchalla claimed on 7 February that "calls for revolt" were also broadcast by RFI. "This is serious," he told foreign reporters in Lomé. "I’m referring to RFI in particular. This station’s journalists want to start a fire and I appeal to their conscience. This is destabilisation, pure and simple," he said.
In its look back on Gen. Gbassingbé’s life, RFI had said it was "not very glorious" and called him a "dictator" and former "colonial-era soldier."
The next day, RFI’s local FM relay transmitters were cut in what the authorities called a "technical failure." FM re-transmission was reestablished two days later without explanation. On 8 February, a visiting RFI correspondent was refused a visa when he tried to enter Togo by land from Benin. RFI expressed its "astonishment" at this decision, especially as journalists from many other media have been able to enter the country without problem.