Press freedom takes another beating

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LOME - Two weeks after becoming a celebrated victim of abuse at the hands of an officer of the French Army, Togolese journalist Didier Ledoux was kidnapped and beaten by Togolese police outside the courthouse where Togo’s government is suing seven newspapers. Ledoux’s saga continues to be a symbol of deteriorating press-freedom conditions in Togo.

The initial altercation took place in Lomé on August 10 between visiting French lieutenant Romuald Letondot and Ledoux. A Reuters videographer recorded the confrontation as Togolese security forces, under the orders of lieutenant Letondot, rushed Ledoux, roughing him up and forcing him to delete pictures of the political protest he was covering. The video posted to YouTube garnered hundreds of thousands of hits in a matter of hours.

Under mounting pressure, the French government reacted sharply in sanctioning the officer and recalling him to France.

Togo's government, on the other hand, kept silent until August 19. In a press release, the government lashed out at the journalists who broadcast the video of the altercation.

"While not approving the words of Lt. Col. Romuald Letondot, the Ministry of Defense and Veterans Affairs stands against all the manipulations that occurred in this event," the statement declared.

"A witness of Togolese nationality posted a video (of the altercation) on the Web without worrying about the serious consequences the video would have both on the French officer and on our dear Togo," the statement said.

Togolese media professionals were disappointed in the government response, but not surprised. The reporter corps quietly believes the so-called security forces are actually repression forces whose goal is to discourage both the political opposition and journalists from exposing government corruption and putting Togo in a negative light internationally.

"The contempt expressed by the French officer against the Togolese people would not have been possible if our own security forces were not pitched against us," said Professor Komi Wolou, spokesman for the PSR, another of Togo’s opposition parties.

In the wake of the first Ledoux affair, the government seems to be stepping up its efforts to control the press. At the moment, seven of Togo's newspapers have fallen afoul of the government and were ordered to appear in court last Wednesday on charges of publishing false information and defaming the President of the Republic and members of his family.

The Court of Lomé was crowded with media covering the trial and supporting their colleagues. Among them was Didier Ledoux. After taking some pictures of the courthouse, as did a television cameraman from local station TV2, Didier was hailed by a policeman.

“He told me he had something to say,” Ledoux later told the press.

As he came over, the policeman waved his hands to a group of policemen stationed near the court building.

“I asked him where we were going, but received no response,” Ledoux said.

As Ledoux paused to inform his reporter colleagues of what was going on, the worst of it began as the police surrounded him.

“Why did you take pictures of us?” asked a lieutenant.

Ledoux replied that he only took pictures of the courthouse and that he was with the cameraman of TV2. But by then, the TV2 cameraman had disappeared.

At this point the police lieutenant - this time Togolese, not French - ordered the other policemen to subdue Ledoux.

“The lieutenant himself gave me a whack on the leg, but I did not fall. And at that moment the other policemen started beating me," Ledoux said. "They then threw me in the van.”

Ledoux was carried away from the courthouse in the van and released in an alley next to the main post office in Lomé. Taken to the hospital, he received treatment and will be under observation for a few days.

Reporters are now asking themselves who will be the next victim, and to what extent the government’s forces are ready and authorized to violate human rights and freedom of the press.

According to Tino Kossi writing in Liberté,, where Didier Ledoux works, “a black list has been made in the back rooms of the ruling party, and this list names journalists considered to be embarrassing to the 'New Leader'. And among them is our own Director Zeus Aziadouvo".

“The only thing these journalists have done wrong is to refuse to call something white when it is black, which is to say, telling the truth, denouncing the wrongs of the ruling party, and denouncing the violence,” Kossi continued.

The French Minister of Defense belatedly but firmly condemned the attitude and behavior of its lieutenant towards Ledoux, stating that “Freedom of the press is a core political value.”

The troubling developments in recent days in Togo proves that Togo’s government does not agree.