Traditionally an example of good practice in West Africa, Benin however went through a year in which much was called into question, mainly because of excesses by a section of the press which flourished in Cotonou, in the wake of presidential elections.
For several years, Benin has been seen as a model of modern democracy in West Africa, guaranteeing a satisfactory level of press freedom, despite its poverty. The year 2006 being a presidential election year, there was a risk that the country could fall into the classic trap of emerging countries which can be destabilised by political violence. But this did not happen and this was to the advantage of all, particularly its journalists.
The election as head of state of Boni Yayi, a man with a technical background rather than a political heavyweight, was achieved with respect for democratic rules. Unusually, problems were not to be found in flagrant imbalances in airtime allowed to different candidates or in appeals to violence by partisan publications. Before and during the election campaign, irregular publications, headed by non-professional journalists, flourished in Cotonou. They were sometimes working in the interests of a politician, sometimes an influential figure. Indeed, this dubious practise is commonplace in Africa and its impact on the campaign was minimal. But once the election was over these publications continued to appear and were put to the service of other masters. And the new government, which decided to clean up this jumble of “local rags”, had no hesitation in using the law - one which had not been strictly applied since 2004 and still provided for prison sentences for press offences.
Resorting to imprisonment
As a result, Virgile Linkpon and Richard Couao-Zotti, respectively publisher and editor of the sporadic and sensationalist La Diaspora de Sabbat, were arrested on 15 September. Action was taken against the two journalists following publication the previous day of an article headlined: “An ill wind blows through the head of state’s entourage: Boni Yayi’s older son is suffering from insanity”. In another case, Cyrille Saïzonou, publisher of the daily Djakpata, was arrested by judicial police on 18 September and was questioned for 24 hours about the publication, on 20 June 2006, of several articles alleging embezzlement within the national police. All three were released on 19 September, after being interviewed then cleared by the prosecutor for the Republic. On the other hand, Clément Adéchian and Cécil Adjévi, respectively publisher and editor of the daily L’Informateur, were sentenced on 1st December to six months in prison and fined 500,000 CFA francs (752 euros) for “defamation” after a court bailiff sued them for accusing him without proof of rape, in one edition of the newspaper.
Reporters Without Borders explained to the Benin government, as it does with all states which retain illiberal legislation, that imprisonment does not constitute a fair and appropriate response to journalistic error. On the contrary, it represents a real threat to democracy. Also it had broken the general rule in Benin until now of a de facto suspension of imprisonment of journalists for the past two years. In the absence of a real decriminalisation, this moratorium had at least allowed renewal of more positive relations between the authorities and the press. Moreover, Reporters Without Borders believed that to circumvent media regulatory bodies, despite their good work in recent years, was to risk stripping them of all their power. So that when journalists working in a democracy make mistakes, press regulation should not be left to the police. Finally, the use of imprisonment lays political overtones onto cases which should remain strictly within the bounds of civil law.