Togo: Victory for Media Freedom, but Clashes Continue

This article was written by Madeleine Bair, Human Rights Channel Curator for WITNESS.

Citizen videos of February and March protests in Togo, all in French, have been compiled via YouTube and Twitter accounts. A comprehensive selection of these videos appears on the Human Rights Channel on YouTube.

Journalists in the West African nation of Togo are celebrating a ruling by the Constitutional Court that throws out a recent law restricting media freedom. The law would have given the country's media regulatory agency the power to punish, censor, and shut down news outlets and reporters without a court order.

Togolese reporters responded to the February law with a media blackout and sit-in in front of the Presidential Palace in March. Video shot by citizen reporters and a pro-reform advocacy group captured the protests as well as the response by authorities. They reveal excessive use of force, resulting in teargas suffocation and injuries caused by rubber bullets.

[Caption translation: Togolese journalists are determined to fight for an independent press.]

With elections approaching, crackdowns on the press as well as opposition figures carry out a pattern among Togolese rulers, who have historically attempted to thwart the democratic process and cling to power. For five decades, the small country has been ruled by one party, the Rally of the Togolese People (RTP). In the 1990s, Togo adopted democratic reforms including multiparty elections. But it has yet to successfully execute those reforms, with each subsequent election marred by political disputes, violence, and repression of opposition parties.

This year has fared no differently. With elections scheduled for late March, 27 members of the opposition coalition, including the president of the National Alliance for Change, were arrested on charges related to fires in the capital city, Lomé. Protests against those arrests were also met with teargas and rubber bullets. Elections have since been postponed.

 [Caption translation: Police harass and throw teargas grenades at women.]

Despite last week’s court decision nullifying the latest press restrictions, reporters in Togo face other impediments. Freedom House describes Togolese press as “Not Free,” not due to legal restrictions but a pattern of intimidation and impunity for attacks on the press. Official and de facto censorship make online journalism ever more important. As reporter Noel Tadegnon remarked, reporters will likely turn to the web to sidestep government censorship as these conflicts continue.

To see more citizen videos of the repression of free press and opposition in Togo, visit the video playlist on the Human Rights Channel. The Human Rights Channel is a WITNESS a collaboration with Storyful, hosted on YouTube.

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