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Human Rights Day - the perspective from Togo

Tuesday 14 January 2020 - 11:42am

Bikers in Lomé, Togo. | Credit: Julius

To commemorate Human Rights Day, PEN International and PEN Centres are launching an essay series and holding events on human rights issues across the globe.

Togo: Freedom of expression from 2015-2019 – two steps forward, one step back?

While in recent years Togo has made progress in political and civil liberties, in particular freedom of expression (as noted by a number of regional and national institutions including the pan-African Afrobarometer survey), there is still much to do to ensure these rights are fully promoted and respected.

Over the last five years, things have resembled a rhythmic pas de deux; each step forward accompanied by another back, each improvement by a worrying hint of regression. Beneath the surface of rapid progress – including spectacular advances in freedom on the internet – there lurk old and regressive attitudes.

Here and there we hear the whimpering pleas of a darker, more regimented age. To quote Brecht, the belly is still fertile...

As an example, in the face of recent political tensions, such as the August 2017 anti-government protests, the government succumbed to temptation and took the easy way out, bringing the full state apparatus down upon the dissidence. In doing so, it opened the door to human rights violations, including the arrest and torture of a journalist, shutting down news outlets and the internet, along with episodes of brutality and arrests.

According to Afrobarometer, in 2017 people generally felt that they had less freedom of expression, with over half of Togolese believing that they should have the freedom to join any organisation they wish, regardless of whether the government approves of it.

Freedom of expression in Togo has been following a tenuous, narrow and prudent path, carried along by the changing winds, facing obstacles and setbacks from time to time along the way. Let’s take a look at the evolution of freedom of expression in the country over the past five years.

The first twist of 2015

One hurdle for freedom of expression was the adoption of a new criminal code in November 2015, replacing the previous code written almost 35 years before.

The new version of the code has fanned worries among the Togolese media, as it reintroduces the criminalisation of press offences. Article 497 sets out punishments of between six months and two years in prison, and a fine of between CFA 500,000 and 2 million (GBP 640 - 2000) for publishing, spreading or printing “false news.” The severity of the punishments has been enough to force media owners to speak up.

2017, Tipping Point

2017 was shaped by a number of negative events in terms of freedom of expression. These include the February 2017 closure of two independent media outlets – the Chaîne du Future and Radio City FM, which were shut down by the High Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAAC) for “lack of papers”, raising a number of questions about the legality of the shutdown; as well as the two-hour detention and torture of a journalist by law enforcement. The journalist was granted an audience with the Minister of Security a number of days later, during which he was assured that the guilty parties would be punished appropriately, but the damage had been done.

Are observers crying wolf, or is the wolf at the door? Whatever the case, things have not been quite so bad since then. In fact, by and large, the black clouds seemed to have cleared... until August 2017.

Political tensions and freedom of expression make for poor bedfellows

According to a June 2018 Afrobarometer report, “Having taken one step forward with freedom of expression, the country has taken two steps back.” This lurch backwards was reflected by a nationwide fall of 21 percentage points since 2014 in people believing the country offered genuine freedom of expression. The fall was even more marked in the areas of the country most affected by events, in particular the central region, the epicentre of the 2017 political crisis, which emerged with calls for the introduction of limits on presidential terms.

Within the context of this socio-political crisis “where there is a strong temptation to respond disproportionately and enter a downward spiral,” the pan-African survey stresses that, “These results call for greater vigilance to protect citizens’ most fundamental human rights under all circumstances.”

During the same time span, the internet was cut off for five days between 5 and 10 September 2017, a move clearly linked to the protests. This seismic measure rendered Togolese citizens both figuratively and literally speechless.

2019, the country holds its breath

Since then, things seemed to have returned to normal, at least as far as is possible. In this moment of relative calm, even if nothing has happened recently, we still remember past events. Freedom of expression continues on its merry way, in particular on the web, where social networks have been a game changer by significantly decentralizing sources of information: on the internet and social networks, information circulates very quickly, and bypasses official channels. Overall, the internet is an incredible place for Togolese media and citizens to express themselves freely. However, as wonderful as the tool is for bringing citizens together, the web remains vulnerable to those wielding dangerous tools.

Furthermore, August 2019 saw the National Assembly adopt a new law outlining limits for the right to protest. No more protests before 11:00 or after 18:00, no marching on national roads, commercial areas, near government buildings, embassies, military bases or residences of representatives of international organisations. Here we go…

In conclusion

As it looks increasingly outwards to international partners, the Togolese government needs to come across as stable and respectable. Their efforts to do so are seen clearly in the major steps taken to make the country eligible for Millennium Challenge Corporation programmes, a US government foreign aid agency launched in 2004, which in turn leads to increased civil liberties. The government has also ratified international agreements, while the constitution protects freedom of the press and freedom of expression.

However, with the close links between political tension and restricted freedom of expression, a significant question mark remains. With elections due in February 2020, what awaits the country in the coming months? For now, it is a case of “so far, so good.”

Civil society is responding to these challenges by becoming increasingly active, especially in cases when a fringe political group is finding itself sidelined. In order to continue this, civil society needs more resources to help protect civic space, but also support from regional and international partners to sustain the free expression that so many Togolese have fought long and hard to win and protect. PEN Togo will continue to play its part by holding the government accountable for their responsibility to protect the right to freedom of expression.

About the authors:

Ayi Renaud Dossavi is a Togolese writer, economic journalist and blogger. He is a poet, novelist and essayist, who was awarded the France-Togo Literary Prize in 2018 for his poetry collection “Chants de sable” [“Songs of Sand”]. In the same year he won first prize in the “Africa of My Dreams” young person’s writing contest held by the African Development Bank (AfDB). Dossavi is currently Secretary General of the writers’ association PEN-Togo, where he promotes writing, literature and freedom of expression, particularly among the young generation.

Noun Fare was born in 1985 in Lomé, Togo. After working as a journalist alongside her studies in Modern Languages, she enrolled in the Ecole Supérieure de Journalisme in Lille, France, earning a degree in journalism in 2012. She now splits her time between journalism, training journalists, and writing novels. Her works include “La sirène des bas-fonds” [“The Siren of the Ghetto”] and "Rivales” [“Rivals”]. She has been a long-time champion of creating a PEN centre in Togo. She succeeded in 2016, and has chaired the centre ever since.