After repeatedly targeting the biweekly newspaper L’Alternative in recent years with administrative sanctions, judicial proceedings and surveillance, Togo’s authorities have finally jailed its editor, Ferdinand Ayité.
Attempts have often been made to intimidate Ayité during his 20 or so years as a journalist but this is the first time he has found himself in a cell. Arrested in Lomé, Togo’s capital, on 9 December, he was immediately jailed on a charge of “insulting authority” and “defamation.” Joël Egah, the editor of the Lomé-based newspaper Fraternité, was jailed on the same charges the next day.
They are accused in connection with their comments during a discussion on “L’Autre Journal,” a current affairs programme broadcast on L’Alternative’s YouTube channel, in which they criticised the fact that the justice minister and commerce minister are both also Protestant pastors. The programme’s presenter, Isidore Kouwonou, was also questioned but was just placed under judicial control. The case is the latest in a string of sanctions and threats against L’Alternative in recent years.
Togo’s media regulator, the High Authority for Broadcasting and Communication (HAAC), ordered L’Alternative’s suspension for two months in March 2020 as a result of a complaint by the French ambassador over an article accusing French President Emmanuel Macron’s Africa adviser of “incestuous connivance” with the regime headed by President Faure Gnassingbé, who had just been reelected for a fourth term after succeeding his father as president in 2005.
The newspaper was suspended again a year later, this time for four months, for investigating a government minister’s administration of a wealthy businessman’s estate. As RSF reported at the time, this suspension was so biased and disproportionate that even one of the HAAC’s own members publicly disowned it.
Continuing impunity, despite exposés
L’Alternative’s incisive coverage of corruption and misgovernment has become its trademark. The tone of its articles is often scathing, sometimes virulent. At the same time, the quality of its investigative reporting has brought the newspaper some notoriety and many problems.
In 2016, L’Alternative participated in the Panama Papers investigation by an international consortium of journalists that exposed use of offshore tax havens by public officials in many countries. The Togolese part of the exposé, carried out with L’Alternative, revealed that the then prime minister was one of the shareholders in a Togolese company whose income was channeled through one of these tax havens. But, despite an outcry in Togo, the prime minister was not investigated and kept his job.
The newspaper exposed scandals but impunity continued. In June 2020, L’Alternative published its “petrolgate” revelations about the embezzlement of hundreds of millions of euros in connection with the importation of petroleum products and the suspected involvement of several government officials. The government announced an audit, of which the final conclusions have yet to be published. No official has been prosecuted. The same cannot be said for L’Alternative, which was fined 6,000 euros at the end of an initial trial held a few months later.
“We resisted, and that annoyed them”
Neither stick nor carrot have managed to sway L’Alternative’s editorial policies. The decision to spy on the newspaper clearly seems to have been taken at the highest level, as the Pegasus Project revelations indicated. Ayité’s mobile phone number was one of the 300 Togolese numbers on the leaked list of phone numbers targeted for surveillance by Pegasus, spyware sold by the Israeli firm NSO Group to governments around the world, including Togo’s.
The Pegasus Project investigation revealed that this spyware was widely misused by NSO Group’s clients to spy on members of civil society including more than 200 journalists worldwide. Ayité is one of the 20 journalists who added their names to the complaints that RSF submitted to the UN and filed with a French court. Since the revelations about how this spyware is used, sources in Togo have been much more cautious over the phone and few now take the time to go the L’Alternative office.
Ayité’s detention is also hitting the newspaper financially. The YouTube broadcasting could become difficult and guests less willing to participate. And it was the income from the YouTube broadcasts that was helping L’Alternative to offset the nervousness of advertisers about being associated with a media outlet openly critical of the government.
“We were approached several times with offers of a more comfortable life, benefits, but we resisted, and that annoyed them,” one of L’Alternative’s journalists told RSF, recalling
the power cuts affecting the newspaper during the major anti-government protests in 2017 and 2018. They were often on Mondays and Thursdays, the two days of the week when the biweekly’s next day’s issue is finalised.
Togo is ranked 74th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index.