Togo: ACHPR review urges reform of laws restricting free expression

In accordance with Article 62 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights the Republic of Togo presented its combined 6th, 7th and 8th periodic reports from 2011 to 2016 during the 63rd Ordinary session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights held from 24 October to 1 November 2018 in Banjul, the Gambia. During the 63rd Ordinary Session, ARTICLE 19 also submitted a shadow report on the human rights situation in Togo, particularly with regard to freedom of expression and access to information.

The shadow report was a call to the ACHPR to consider critical human rights issues affecting freedom of expression and access to information including the working environment of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) in Togo. ARTICLE 19 raised concerns about continued restrictions on freedom of expression both on line and off line, the frequent shut downs of the Internet, infringement on media freedoms such as the order by the High Authority for Audiovisual and Communication (HAAC) to remove frequencies of City FM radio station and Chain the future TV station. Equally concerned about the independence of the HAAC and the shrinking civic space and restrictive working environment for HRDs leading to arrests and detention; for example, of Assiba Johnson, the president of REJADD over charges of defamation and spreading false news.

The Minister of Justice and Institutional Relations, Agbetomey Kokoavi Pius, who led the eight member delegation from Togo, reiterated government commitments to protect and implement provisions specified in the Charter and the Maputo Protocol.

The ACHPR commended and welcomed with satisfaction the measures taken by the government of Togo to implement the provisions of the Charter. Some of the key positive developments highlighted include; the inclusive participation of CSOs in drafting of the report, the enactment of the law No 2016-006 on Free access to information and Public documents and Law No 2013-010 on Legal Assistance among others.

However, the African Commission was concerned about the non-compliance by Togo in respecting the right to freedom of expression and access to information as provided in the international and regional instruments that it has ratified. Notably, the Commission noted that discriminatory laws should not inhibit freedom of expression. A concern was made of the New Revised Penal Code of 2015, which increased the number of crimes related to freedom of expression and provided harsher sanctions. For example, it criminalises defamation with a punishment of four years in prison, and uttering seditious chants in public assemblies with a penalty of two months in prison. A strong concern was also raised on internet shut downs in Togo. The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, Commissioner Lawrence Mute noted that ‘states use a hammer to kill a mosquito and shut down internet; making it impossible for citizens to communicate is unacceptable’. A concern was also raised about the order made by the High Audiovisual and Communication Authority (HAAC) to remove frequency license for City FM radio station and Chain the future TV station and the overall independence of the regulator (HAAC).

With regard to access to information, the Commission was concerned about the effective implementation of the new law, including measures taken to ensure that a culture of secrecy, which requires Public Officials to take oath of secrecy, does not stop them from giving information to the public.

With regard to freedom of association, many concerns were raised of the restrictive working environment for Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) and the denial by the government to give accreditation to some associations. The government was asked to provide information on the status and case of Isah Kokodoge and Assiba Johnson, who were arrested for allegedly taking part in a demonstration and spreading ‘false news’ respectively.

While considering the state report, the African Commission urged the government of Togo to re-open City FM and Chain the future TV Station. The Special Rapporteur on HRDs said, “your excuse of media houses not following legal procedures is the motive in all African Countries. It is not possible to open a TV station and later close it”. On Internet shut downs, the Commission noted that shutting down the Internet is against the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, which allows people to benefit from ICT services to which Togo must implement. The government was further urged to create an enabling and conducive environment for HRDs noting that public officials are the first HRDs.

The government of Togo attempted to justify some of its actions and flaws in its legislation, but overall accepted the recommendations of the ACHPR and has indicated its readiness to cooperate for implementation.

 It is important after such an important dialogue that the Government recognise its short-comings and commit to correct them. The ACHPR must seize the opportunity before the next presidential election to support Togo to better comply with the Charter,said Fatou Jagne Senghor, Regional Director of ARTICLE 19 West Africa.