H.E. President Gnassingbe Eyadema
Présidence de la République
Résidence Lomé II
Fax: + 228 21 18 97
Vienna, 3 July 2001
The International Press Institute (IPI), the global network of editors and media executives, is profoundly disturbed by the decision of the Togolese authorities to seize the print-run of an opposition newspaper.
According to information provided to IPI, on 2 July, a group of armed men, some of whom were dressed in military uniform, entered the print works of the opposition weekly, Le Combat du Peuple (People’s Combat) seized printing plates and printed pages of the newspaper.
Responding to criticism over the raid, Togolese interior minister, General Sizing Walla, told Reuters that the seizure had been ordered because the newspaper was about to publish “texts of such a nature as would threaten public order.” The interior minister went on to say that the article in Le Combat du Peuple alleged that the authorities had deliberately jailed an individual for expressing an intention to kill a former minister, Harry Octavianus Olympio, who is currently in prison after the seizure of explosives at his home and party headquarters.
Over the last 12 months, there have been a number of assaults on the newspaper. On 5 June, Lucien Messan, editorial director of Le Combat du Peuple, was given an 18-month sentence, six months of which was suspended, for expressing “falsehood and the use of falsehood”. The sentence was awarded by the court for publishing statements on Togo’s human rights’ record. On 17 July 2000, thousands of copies of the newspaper were seized from wholesalers and distributors. Further copies of the newspaper, along with copies of Le Scorpion, were seized on 31 July 2000 when the newspapers sought to publish a report by the Togolese League of Human Rights.
In the opinion of IPI, the use of public order offences is an unwarranted suppression of a newspaper’s right to report freely on events occurring in Togo. Moreover, IPI would remind Your Excellency that article 26 of the Togolese constitution, enacted in September 1992, expressly guarantees freedom of expression and states that the “press shall not be subject to pre-publication authorisation or warnings or other restrictions”. Concerning international obligations, Togo is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states, under article 19, “everyone has the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds”. Aside from this covenant, Togo is also a party to the African Charter of People’s and Human Rights which sets out similar rights.
Concerning the government accusations made against Le Combat du Peuple, IPI notes that these involve public order (“ordre public”), which is often used in international covenants as an exception to the right to freedom of expression. However, such an exception, may only be used in very narrow circumstances and must be provided by law and be necessary. Furthermore, in order for the exception to be proved, it must be strictly proportional to the specific interest that is being pursued and must not unduely burden the right that is being excepted. In the opinion of IPI, such an exception should only be used as a last resort and where there is a real likelihood or “clear and present danger” that a breach of public order will occur.
In relation to the present case, IPI views the use of public order offences to be outside international standards on exceptions to freedom of expression. The article on a suspected plot to murder a politician was a valid and newsworthy article, well within the bounds of normal investigative journalism. IPI would also remind Your Excellency that public order offences are not self-justifying – the government cannot merely announce a public order offence as a means of justifying its actions. There must be clear evidence that a breach of public order is likely to occur. So far, the statements from the government have provided no indication that this is true in the present case.
With the above in mind, IPI invites Your Excellency to desist from using public order offences as a means of silencing the media. Furthermore, the government of Togo should instigate a public review of all laws in the country that infringe freedom of expression and freedom of the press and ensure that they are brought into line with Togo’s international commitments. By doing so, you will be guaranteeing freedom of expression and the press in Togo.
We thank you for your attention.
Johann P. Fritz