Freedom of the Press 2007

Freedom of speech and of the press are protected by the constitution, and the government has developed a reputation for respecting these rights in practice. However, in 2006 a number of worrying developments occurred that, if continued, could threaten Benin’s status as one of the freest environments for the media in Africa. In December, a 1997 Press Law that criminalizes libel was implemented for the first time in two years. A court bailiff, Maxime Bankole, pressed charges against the private newspaper L’Informateur for refusing to retract a story accusing him of rape. The courts sentenced both the editor and a journalist at L’Informateur to six months in prison and a US$1,000 fine. During 2005, in preparation for the March 2006 presidential election, the High Council for Audiovisual Media and Communications (HAAC) passed provisions mandating fair and balanced coverage of all presidential candidates. The provisions also restricted the amount of time a media outlet could devote to a particular presidential candidate and forbade opinion pieces on the election that might jeopardize “national unity.” At year’s end, as part of the new government’s effort to “clean up the journalism sector,” the HAAC instituted a requirement that all working journalists obtain a new press card; the conditions for obtaining one of these cards are strict and were intended to apply to less than 40 percent of those journalists in order to weed out the nonprofessionals. During its final days in power leading up to the March election, Mathieu Kerekou’s regime made a number of direct attempts to limit critical content in the media industry. In February, the managing editor of a private daily newspaper, Panorama, was temporarily detained and charged with high treason after publishing an article describing an alleged coup attempt intended to keep Kerekou in power. Also, in early March Kerekou’s communications minister fired two top officials at the state-run broadcast office (Office de Radiodiffusion et de Television du Benin—ORTB) after they refused to broadcast a government videotape that allegedly proved the presence of electoral fraud, citing doubts about the tape’s authenticity. After the election, the new president, Boni Yayi, appointed a minister of communications who immediately reinstated the fired ORTB officials. However, threats against the press did not disappear entirely with the resignation of Kerekou; in September, three journalists with two separate privately run newspapers were arrested and temporarily detained for articles critical of the police and the new president’s family. Benin’s numerous established media outlets have a history of providing aggressive reporting and robust scrutiny of both government and opposition leaders. However, the media market has recently become saturated by a number of publications that emerged for the first time in the month preceding the election, many of which receive direct political funding. The inability of most of Benin’s media operators to garner a consistent profit further limits accuracy and fairness in reporting by making poorly paid reporters susceptible to bribery and blackmail. Internet access is available primarily through dial-up internet cafés that remain unhindered by government censorship, and at 425,000 users (just over 5 percent of the population), Benin had one of West Africa’s highest rates of access to this new medium in 2006.