Beninese journalist Ignace Sossou’s story and the suppression of the press in West Africa

After 6 months in jail for accurately reporting on governmental corruption and illicit financial flows in Benin, Ignace Sossou is finally being released. Yet his arrest represents a larger decline in the freedom of the press in Benin and West Africa.

On December 20th 2019, Benisese journalist Igance Sossou was arrested and sent to prison for 18 months for “harassment by means of electronic communication.” According to the Beninese authorities, Sossou was arrested for misquoting a speaker at the French Media Development (CFI) conference who was presenting on Benin’s digital restrictions. Days after his arrest a transcript of the conference proved that Sossou had correctly reported the speech and was wrongfully convicted. 

As tragic as his arrest, Sossou’s story also reflects the new reality of the Benisese government since President Patrice Talon’s election in 2016, says Emmanuel Dogbevi, managing editor of Ghana Business News and executive director of NewsBridge Africa. 

“It should be obvious to everyone observing developments in Benin that Patrice Talon has no interest in sustaining the long-held principles of democracy, individual rights and freedom,” Dogbevi said. “Right at the beginning of his presidency, Talon clamped down on all activities of civil society and used the forces of the state to silence critics and groups demanding accountability, good governance, and the freedoms guaranteed under the country’s constitution.”

In fact, under President Talon, the Beninsese government passed a law on cybercrime, putting restrictions on electronic communication, which has been used to directly attack journalists, David Dembele, founder of the Malian Network of Journalists of Investigation (RMJI), explained. 

“It was this cybercrime law that the government improperly applied to Ignace. Our colleague is not a criminal; he is a good journalist whom the Benin authorities tried to smear,” Dembele said. 

Though corruption has become all too common under President Talon’s leadership, Benin has a long history of financial misconduct. In addition to being one of the poorest countries in West Africa, Benin has experienced one of the highest losses in illicit financial flows by percentage of trade. In a 2018 report, The Global Financial Integrity (GFI) estimated that in the past 38 years Benin has lost $14.4 billion in corruption in public procurement, particularly embezzlement, and in foriegn trade.  

As a journalist, Sossou spent time investigating and reporting tax avoidance and general corruption in the Benisese government. In 2018, Sossou worked in collaboration with journalists in 11 countries on a project called West African Leaks where he helped to uncover financial corruption of politicians and corporations. 

“Considering Benin’s history, it is even more concerning that the authorities, instead of protecting groups and journalists like Sossou who are doing their job of shining light on illicit financial flows and corruption, have turned against them,” Dogbevi remarked. 

The arrest of Sossou reflects the threatened state of the freedom of the press not just in Benin, but in West Africa at large. For example, in Nigeria, Togo, Burkina Faso, and Guinea the government has been clamping down on freedom of speech and of the press.

“Critical voices have been attacked, persecuted, jailed and even killed. Critical newspapers and radio stations have been shut down,” Dogbevi said. Front Page Africa, a mainstream Liberian newsource, has been charged with 1.8 million dollars after reporting critically on the government. In other cases, such as in Ghana in 2019 and 2015, journalists have been shot and killed. 

Reversing the decline in individual freedom will require both legal and international action. When Sossou is released after serving 6 months of his sentence, he will need support to pursue legal action against the Benisese government to clear his name as a journalist.

“Ignace must be given all the support to pursue the case in the international legal system if necessary, as the justice system in Benin has shown it can’t be trusted to deliver fair judgement,” Dogbevi said. “That itself will send a signal to the authorities in Benin that they can’t continue to abuse the powers entrusted into them by the people.”

The international community is essential in aiding the continued fight for freedom of the press in West Africa. “To ensure that Igance is not threatened again, organizations created to protect journalists should spring into action fast enough to provide him with sufficient legal representation. Further, the international community should continue to make its voice heard in shaming the Benisese government for its action,” Dogbevi added. 

“Ignace must continue his work as a journalist after he is released to serve as a light for the people of Benin and beyond. Journalists need more solidarity and above all increased support,” Dembele concluded. 

Support from the international journalist community can come in the form of advocacy, empowerment, defense funds, journalism training, and regular engagements with governments to remind them of their responsibilities in protecting freedom of speech. 

Most importantly, West Africans, and people around the world, must unite under the cause of protecting journalists’ civil liberties and the freedom of the press. A government is more likely to respect these rights if they know that their citizens are watching and holding them accountable, Dogbevi concluded.

Join CCIJ Intern Jane Johnston and Emmanuel Dogbevi on Instagram Live to discuss Sossou’s release on June 26th at 1 pM EST/ 5 PM GMT.

Organizations currently supporting the rights of journalists:

National Freedom of Information Coalition

Media Law Resource Center

Committee to Protect Journalists

Society of Professional Journalists