As many as 60 privately-owned radio and TV stations could be closed down in Togo in a continuing wave of censorship that began after President Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s death on 5 February and the takeover by his son, Faure Gnassingbé, Reporters Without Borders warned today.
"It is now clear that the authorities intend to silence all the intractable news media," the press freedom organization said. "The independent body set up in Togo to regulate the media sector is no longer fulfilling its role, while the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (ART&P) is now just doing the government’s dirty work," the organization continued.
"Nobody is fooled by the high-handed and hypocritical procedures being used to censor the opposition media, and we voice our full support for the Togolese press and journalists’ groups which are getting caught up in an increasingly alarming spiral," Reporters Without Borders added.
Seven privately-owned radio stations and two privately-owned TV stations have been closed on varying pretexts ranging from "inciting revolt" and tax reasons since President Eyadéma’s death.
In a communique broadcast on state radio today, the ART&P said the wave of closures "had been programmed some time ago and had been discussed with the representative of the Union of Free Radio and TV Stations of Togo (URATEL) at least six months ago."
The statement continued that, "despite repeated warnings to URATEL’s president, around 60 of the 87 privately-owned radio and TV stations have not deigned to honour their obligations." It concluded that, "this programme [of closures] will extend in the coming days to all the provincial radio and TV stations that are not up to date with their payments."
Contacted by Reporters Without Borders about this communique, URATEL president Jacques Djakouti confirmed that negotiations began between the ART&P and news media that were behind with their payments: "Many radio stations proposed a payment schedule and began to pay their debts when the negotiations were abruptly broken off a few days ago. The demand was then suddenly made for all debts to be paid at once and in full."
Nana FM station manager Peter Dogbé, secretary-general of the Union of Independent Journalists of Togo (UJIT), said the ART&P communique was intended to sabotage the negotiations. "I proposed a payment schedule on 25 January which, if adhered to, would have meant that all of my station’s arrears would have been paid by 31 May, including what is owed for 2005," he told Reporters Without Borders. "But I never received a response to my proposal."
Meanwhile, according to information obtained from a number of radio stations, the orders closing the stations were dated 11 February, while the ART&P communique supposedly justifying their closure is dated 14 February.
Three Togolese organizations - UJIT, URATEL and the Togolese Media Watchdog (OTM) - condemned the wave of closures in a joint statement sent to Reporters Without Borders today, saying it had come "at a moment when the nation is experiencing an unprecedented crisis and the public is in great need of quick and credible news and information."
The crackdown was designed to "reverse Togo’s recent press freedom gains" and raised concerns about "the future possibilities for the media to promote diversity of opinion in our country," the joint statement added.
Following the closures of Radio Nana FM, Radio Kanal FM, Radio Nostalgie, Radio Lumière and the television station TV7 between 6 and 11 February, three more radio stations and a TV station were closed yesterday. These were Radio Carré Jeune, Radio Zion and Télévision Zion - all pro-opposition - and Radio Djabal’nour, a Muslim station.