January 16, 2020
The Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) wishes to express its deep concern following Benin Republic’s sentencing, on December 24, 2019, of the journalist, Ignace Sossou, who is serving 18 months in prison, and has been handed a fine of 200 000 FCFA ($338) for harrassment. In many ways, Sossou’s conviction, which followed a distorted and unfair judicial process, represents a serious assault on the freedoms of expression and of the press, and undermines the significant advances that have been made when it comes to freedom of expression in Africa. On December 19, 2019, CFI Medias, a group that promotes media development in Africa, the Middle East, and southeast Asia, organized ‘Verifox,’ a workshop on the use of social media. Mario Mètenou, a public prosecutor, was among those invited; he spoke on a panel discussion about laws concerning internet and social-media use in Benin. Sossou live-tweeted three of the prosecutor’s remarks. The prosecutor quickly told Sossou to delete the tweets; CFI initially backed the prosecutor’s demands.. Sossou refused. A complaint from the prosecutor led to Ignace’s arrest at his home on the morning of December 20. Our colleague was taken to the Central Office for the Suppression of Cybercrime, where he was held in custody until his trial on December 24, 2019. Tried in a hurry on Christmas Eve, he was accused of having taken the words of the prosecutor out of context. A letter signed by the Africa director of CFI, sent to Benin Republic’s justice minister in the aftermath of the Verifox conference, was cited by the prosecution during Sossou’s trial. Even though CFI later expressed its regret for the letter and demanded Sossou’s swift release, it goes without saying that its initial stance bolstered the prosecutor’s complaint against Sossou. The letter described our colleague as “unscrupulous,” and openly accused him of having published “shortened and out-of-context phrases [that] absolutely did not reflect the tenor of the discussion that was had during the debate.” Ignace has always been a model of professionalism, and has developed a very good reputation, working with organizations such as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), and the Norbert Zongo Cell for Investigative Journalism in West Africa (CENOZO). Furthermore, excerpts of audio recordings of the workshop that we were able to obtain show that Sossou did not misrepresent the prosecutor’s remarks, and that the decision reached by the court in his case is baseless. The members of CCIJ deplore the harsh sentence inflicted on one of its collaborators, which represents a serious assault on the freedoms of speech and of the press and a significant hardship to his family. CCIJ wishes also to express its concern at the deterioration of press freedom in Benin Republic in recent years. We take this opportunity to call on the authorities in Benin Republic to respect the freedoms of expression and of the press that are guaranteed by the country’s constitution and laws, as well as by international agreements to which Benin willingly subscribed. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), organizations that seek to defend journalists, have also demanded the immediate release of Ignace Sossou. CCIJ joins these organizations in demanding Sossou’s immediate and unconditional release. The Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) The Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) is a non-profit organization that brings together journalists, visual documentarians, data scientists, faculty and students to carry out ongoing investigations into critical global issues.