13 September 2017 – Restrictions placed on freedom of expression by the Togolese authorities in recent weeks in response to public protests are deeply concerning, PEN International said today, noting the reports of an internet shutdown lasting six days and reported attempts to prevent journalists from carrying out their work. PEN reminds the authorities of their duty to protect freedom of expression as per their regional and international commitments.
The six-day internet shutdown, which took place between 5-10 September, came on the back of protests by the opposition calling for the return of the 1992 Constitution and a two-term presidential limit. The protests, which have been largely peaceful, took place on 19 August, and continued on 6 and 7 September. 100,000 people were reported to have attended the protests on 6 September and there have been reports of a heavy-handed response by the security services to the protests, including on 19 August when two people were killed. The Information Minister Gilbert Bawara has claimed that ‘the government reserved the right to impose restrictions on access to the Internet’ and did so for ‘security’ reasons. The opposition has called for further protests to take place.
“Access to the internet is of critical importance to realise many human rights. Freedom of expression certainly, but also seeking, receiving and imparting information to access jobs, work, entertainment, and communicate,” said Salil Tripathi, Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee at PEN International. “By shutting down the internet the government not only violates rights but also causes enormous hardship. The authorities should ensure there are no further disruptions to internet services.”
Internet shutdowns in general have become more commonplace worldwide, including in African countries. According to Access Now, in 2016 at least 11 African countries shutdown the internet and/or blocked access to social media and other communications services at key democratic moments – mainly during elections and popular protests. In 2017, Cameroon shutdown the internet in the Anglophone region for 94 days.
The United Nations Human Rights Council in a 2016 resolution condemned ‘measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law,” and called “on all States to refrain from and cease such measures.”
In addition to the internet closure, reports indicated that TV5 Monde and France2 journalist Emmanuelle Sodji had her accreditation withdrawn by the authorities and was asked to leave the country, allegedly because of her reporting on the protests by opposition parties. There have also been reports of journalists’ cameras being confiscated while covering the protests.
Togo has seen a general decline in freedom of expression over the past few years. In February 2017, the High Authority for Audiovisual and Communication (HAAC) took the radio station CityFM and TV station La Chaîne du Futur off the air for alleged breaches of licensing rules. Amnesty International has pointed out that this was a disproportionally heavy measure. In 2015, a new Penal Code was introduced that criminalises the publication of false information, with a punishment ranging from six months to two years in prison, as well as a fine.