Benin crackdown on online media fuels press fears

Cotonou (AFP) –


Online media in Benin are facing a complete wipeout after the authorities ordered them to shut down, in a move critics say is aimed at stifling journalists ahead of elections next year.

The west African nation's state media regulator issued a decree in early July ordering all online outlets to "end publication" or risk facing legal punishment.

The watchdog said internet outlets had been opened "without prior authorisation" and that those behind them had not been properly vetted.

"This constitutes a danger to the country," said Fernand Gbaguidi, spokesman for the High Audiovisual and Communication Authority.

Since the announcement Leonce Gamai, the managing director of popular investigative news site Banouto, has been losing sleep.

Work at the outlet is "on hold" and he has had to suspend his staff of seven journalists until the situation becomes clearer.

He insists the site long ago went through all the legal formalities and is hoping to get the greenlight to return to business soon.

But the financial situation is becoming increasingly precarious.

"We have commitments with partners and we have the obligation to honour them," Gamai told AFP.

- 'Reduce us to silence' -

Benin, Nigeria's western neighbour of 11 million people, has long been seen as one of the region's most stable democracies.

But since business magnate Patrice Talon became president in 2016, journalists and opponents have complained of increasing authoritarianism.

For many in the media the latest move against online outlets is yet another attempt to curb potentially critical voices.

The government pushed through controversial legislation in 2018 targeting those working online and criminalising the sharing of "false information" on social media.

A growing number of journalists and bloggers have faced investigation under the law.

Last December investigative TV reporter Ignace Sossou was detained after tweeting statements by a state prosecutor.

He was eventually sentenced to a year in jail on charges including "harassment" and released in June after serving six months.

"They want to reduce us to silence because those in power cannot control online media as easily as they do with traditional outlets," one journalist at an internet TV station told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The reporter insisted the motives are clear for the authorities.

Talon has been grappling with a political crisis since disputed parliamentary elections last year -- and is facing a presidential vote next April.

Those in power want to carry out "a purge in the media before the election", the web journalist said.

Benin this year dropped 17 places to 113th out of 180 countries in the annual press freedom index from Reporters Without Borders.

"Journalists enjoy a significant degree of freedom of expression," the media rights group said.

"However, the state-owned media have provided little coverage of opposition activities since Patrice Talon became president in 2016, and the media have been subjected to close surveillance."

Zakiath Latoundji, head of Benin's Union of Media Professionals, said attempts to "clean up" the online space were not necessarily bad.

But he denounced the "brutality" of the move from the state media regulator.

Eustace Agboton, who heads an association for internet journalists, insisted the move amounted to "a kind of restriction of freedom of expression".

"When we know the increasingly important role played by online media, we have the right to question the timing of this," she said.