Benin: Punitive online journalism legislation poses setback to press freedom

Screenshot from ORTB YouTube Channel. Fair use.

This piece was written as part of  Advox's partnership with the Small Media Foundation to bring you the UPROAR initiative, a collection of essays highlighting challenges in digital rights in countries undergoing the UN's Universal Periodic Review process.

The application of Benin’s Digital Code to online journalists complicates matters for the online  journalism profession in this country, thus jeopardizing press freedom.

The emergence of new media formats, like online press and web TV and radio, the digital media ecosystem revolution has led to various challenges. These developments have also paradoxically resulted in restrictions on freedom of expression.

Benin’s media landscape features an abundance of media formats. For an estimated population of over 13 million citizens, there are around 15 television stations, more than 70 radio stations, and a hundred or so print and online media outlets that are in constant development. Press freedom is guaranteed in the Constitution of Benin. Likewise, Benin's media regulator, the High Authority for Audiovisual and Communication (HAAC), safeguards the protection of the press and all means of mass communication. The HAAC also safeguards journalist protection under Benin’s Information and Communication Code by abolishing press offenses.

However, the transformation of Benin’s media landscape, with its new information and communication technologies, has ultimately led to the introduction of new legislation. This legislation has been added to the country’s Press Code of Ethics and has thereby been applicable to journalists since 2018. Benin’s Digital Code imposes several restrictions. For example, paragraph three of Article 550 stipulates:

Quiconque initie ou relaie une fausse information contre une personne par le biais des réseaux sociaux ou toute forme de support électronique est puni d'une peine d'emprisonnement d’un (01) mois à six (06) mois et d’une amende de 500 000 FCFA (803 dollars américains) à un 1 000 000 FCFA (1 606 dollars américains), ou de l'une de ces peines seulement.

Anyone who creates or shares false information about a person on social media or any other form of electronic communication shall either be punished by one (01) to six (06) months imprisonment, a fine of FCFA 500,000 (USD 803) to FCFA 1,000,000 (USD 1,606), or both.

Following the introduction of this code, Benin experienced an unprecedented fall in the Reporters without Borders’ (RSF) World Press Freedom ranking, where it fell from a rank of 78 in 2017 to 112 in 2023.

According to Amnesty International Benin, the aforementioned code has been instrumental in this:

The digital code has created a climate of fear and censorship. It is used to catch journalists and opponents who speak out online. @amnesty thereby calls on the government of Benin, @gouvbenin, to reform certain code provisions and comply with international law @wasexo

– Amnesty International Bénin (@amnestybenin) 28 January, 2020

Several arrests

In December 2019, legal authorities used this Digital Code to arrest Beninese journalist, Ignace Sossou. Sossou was accused of committing acts of harassment on social media. On X (formerly Twitter), the journalist had posted comments made by public prosecutor, Mario Metonou, at a conference held in Cotonou by French media development agency, Canal France International (CFI Médias), on the country's internet shutdown during the parliamentary elections on April 28, 2019;

“The internet shutdown during the parliamentary elections on April 28 is a sign of government weakness” –  Mario Mètonou, Public Prosecutor @CFImedias #VérifoxAfrique #Bénin

— Ignace Sossou (@Ignacekp) December 18, 2019

His imprisonment sparked outrage among several press freedom organizations throughout the world. On February 27, 2020, Amnesty International West and Central Africa emphasized on X that journalism wasn't a crime:

Together with @RSF_inter, @AFRICTIVISTES and 5 other organizations, we call for the acquittal of Beninese journalist, Ignace Sossou.

He has been in prison for over two months. Journalism is not a crime!

Image: The Digital Code Act has done nothing but create a climate of repression and bring unwarranted restrictions on the right to freedom of expression in Benin.

— Amnesty West & Central Africa (@AmnestyWARO) February 27, 2020

In June 2020, Ignace Sossou was finally released. However, the alleged offences that led to his arrest have since been used in cases involving other journalists.

For example, in November 2021, Patrice Gbaguidi and Hervé Alladé were arrested following a defamation complaint made by a customs officer over one of their articles published in August that year. In December 2021, they were each given a six-month prison sentence and fined FCFA 500,000 (USD 803). The news was shared by Reporters Without Borders on X:

1/2 #Bénin: detained since November 18, journalist, Patrice Gbaguidi, and owner and editor of Le Soleil Bénin media outlet, Hervé Alladé, were sentenced to a 6-month suspended prison sentence and fined 500,000 CFA francs (760 euros) at the Court of Cotonou yesterday.

— RSF (@RSF_inter) December 8, 2021

The most recent case is that of Virgile Ahouansè, journalist and news director for the online radio station, Crystal News. His arrest came as a result of sharing an investigation into the alleged extrajudicial killings conducted at the Dowa public primary school in Porto-Novo (capital of Benin) on November 17, 2022. He was arrested and remanded in custody from December 20 to 22, 2022.

He was subsequently charged with “spreading false information by electronic means” at the Criminal Chamber of Benin’s Court of Repression of Economic Offenses and Terrorism CRIET). On June 15, 2023, he was given a 12-month suspended prison sentence and fined FCFA 200,000 (USD 322).

Digital code threatens press freedom

In today’s digital era, where all major media outlets use the internet to better connect with their viewers, listeners and readers, the threats that journalists face are not only an issue for online journalists, but for journalists as a whole.

In an interview with Global Voices on WhatsApp, Virgile Ahouansè said that the digital code doesn’t only threaten the safety of online journalists. He instead states:

C'est la sécurité des journalistes en général qui est menacée. Pas seulement ceux des journalistes en ligne. Mais des journalistes en général.

The safety of journalists, in general, is threatened. Not only that of online journalists, but journalists in general.

Imprisonment is among the threats that Benin’s online journalists regularly encounter, and sometimes intimidation.

This was the case for Ignace Sossou, who had been initially ordered to delete the information shared on his social media. On May 6, 2020, Voxafrica journalist, Ginette Fleure Adandé, wrote:

Le procureur accuse le journaliste d’avoir sorti ses propos de leur contexte et lui enjoint, épaulé par les équipes de CFI, de supprimer ces publications. Ce qu'a refusé Ignace Sossou, prenant une telle injonction comme une violation de ses droits.

The prosecutor accused this journalist of taking his comments out of context and, with the backing of the CFI, ordered him to delete his posts. Taking this order as a violation of his human rights, Ignace Sossou refused.

Given the many challenges that today's press sector is facing, the professionalism of journalists is being increasingly called into question. In an interview with Global Voices on WhatsApp, teacher and journalist Romuald Vissoy, recommends:

Pour leur sécurité, les journalistes numériques doivent se démarquer des activistes du web. Il faut qu'ils soient professionnels et connus des autorités qui régulent les informations dans le pays.

For their safety, online journalists must distinguish themselves from online activists. They must be professional and known to the authorities who regulate information in this country.

A need to come together

In order to have their say and be heard, online journalists would be well advised to establish a network to defend their rights. This is the view of Ozias Houngue, journalist and editor-in-chief of Libre express, who Global Voices interviewed on WhatsApp:

(…)Je crois qu'il est important pour eux de se retrouver en une organisation pour défendre leur droit. Dans n'importe qu'elle démocratie, quand vous ne vous réunissez pas pour défendre vos droits, vous n'obtenez pas de grands changements. J'invite toutefois les journalistes à faire leur travail tout en respectant le code du numérique.

I think it’s important that they form a network to defend their rights. In any democracy, if you don’t come together to defend your rights, you cannot achieve major changes. However, I call on these journalists to carry out their work in compliance with the digital code.

Likewise, during a press conference in December 2019, Zakiath Latondji , president of the Union of Media Professionals of Benin (UPMB), called on journalists to show greater professionalism and respect for professional conduct and ethics.

Malgré les conditions difficiles d'exercice du métier de journaliste dans notre pays, l'Union des professionnels des médias du Bénin invite tous les professionnels des médias à faire de l'éthique et de la déontologie des boussoles dans la collecte, le traitement, la publication et diffusion de l'information.

Despite the challenging conditions that journalists encounter in our country, the Union of Media Professionals of Benin (UPMB) calls on all media professionals to use ethics and professional conduct as their guiding principles when collecting, processing, publishing and sharing information.

In view of these coercive measures, the journalism profession, especially for those working online, and press freedom, are increasingly at risk in Benin.

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