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Investigative journalist sentenced to 18 months in prison

Expression

2018 Digital Code: journalist sentenced to 18 months in prison

On 20th December 2019, investigative journalist and editor for the online news outlet Benin Web TV, Ignace Sossou, was arrested at his home in Cotonou by officers of the Central Office for the Suppression of Cybercrime (ORCR). The journalist was questioned at the ORCR offices about posts he published on Twitter and Facebook quoting the public prosecutor Mario Metonou at a media workshop on 18th December 2019 on the topic of fake news. A few days later, on 24th December 2019, a court in Benin sentenced Sossou to a prison term of 18 months and a fine of 200,000 CFA francs (335 USD) for 'harassment by means of electronic communication' under the 2018 Digital Code. According to media freedom group Reporters without Borders (RSF), after comparing the social media post with the transcript released by the workshop organiser, the journalist quoted the prosecutor 'word by word, with a few very minor exceptions that in no way distorted what he said'. As previously reported on the Monitor, Ignace Sossou had already received a suspended one-month prison term and a fine of 550,000 francs CFA (930 USD) by a court in Cotonou in August 2019 for 'publishing false news on the internet' under the Digital Code, over two articles Sossou wrote and published on tax evasion and illicit financial flows.  

In a statement, Amnesty International said that at least 17 journalists, bloggers and opposition members have been prosecuted in less than two years under the 2018 Digital Code, which contains restrictive provisions. François Patuel of Amnesty stated:

"This law could be a major step forward for the digital sector. However, the numerous arrests and prosecutions carried out under some of its provisions reinforce the climate of censorship and fear which has reigned in Benin since the last legislative elections in particular." (translated from French)

Besides Ignace Sassou, restrictive provisions in the Digital Code have been used against journalist Aristide Fassinou Hounkpevi and eight cyberactivists in the past few weeks, said the human rights organisation. Following a complaint by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, ORCR officers arrested Aristide Fassinou Hounkpevi, editor of the online media outlet L'Autre Figaro after searching the journalist's home in Lokossa on 3rd January 2020. The action is reportedly in relation to social media posts published by the journalist. Hounkpevi had allegedly been informed that he was accused of 'harassment by means of electronic communication' under the Digital Code. The journalist was released on 9th January 2020. 

Opposition radio station Soleil FM suspended

Following the decision by the national media regulator, Haute Authorité de l’Audiovisuel et de la Communication (HAAC), to reject the application to renew its license, radio station Soleil FM was ordered to suspend its broadcasts 'until further notice' as of 18th December 2019. According to HAAC the renewal application, which was submitted in August 2019, was rejected as it was not signed by the radio station's owner, opposition politician and former presidential candidate Sebastien Ajavon, who currently lives in self-imposed exile in France. As a result of the radio station's suspension, its 41 staff members were dismissed in January 2020. Soleil FM journalist Virgile Ahouansè said to the press: 

"It is a pity that the body invested by the Constitution to protect press freedom has come to such a radical solution that does not take into account the right to information of Beninese." (translated from French)

Soleil FM was previously suspended in 2016, while its frequency has been jammed in the past.