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Benin TV station censored amid presidential pressure

(CPJ/IFEX) - 7 December 2012 - The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns censorship of Beninese private television station Canal 3 and defamation charges against its director for coverage of a corruption scandal involving aides of President Boni Yayi, who appears to have pressured the media regulator into taking action against the station.

On November 20, Benin's state-run media regulator, the High Authority for Broadcasting and Communication (HAAC), suspended the Canal 3 program Sous L'Arbre à Palabres, a Sunday talk show, for three months; and suspended a debate segment on Actu Matin, a daily news program, for two weeks, according to local journalists and news reports.

The suspensions came after Yayi, in a letter to HAAC's president dated September 19, called for sanctions against Canal 3 and compared the two programs to Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, infamous for its role in Rwanda's 1994 genocide. In the letter, of which CPJ obtained a copy, Yayi accused the station of undermining national cohesion.

Yayi singled out the September 16 edition of Sous L'Arbre à Palabres, saying presenters on the show made "accusations based on unfounded information" about a corruption scandal in which his associates have been accused of receiving bribes from a private company for the construction of a dry port in the southern town of Tori-Bossito. Yayi sacked several top aides and officials accused of involvement in recent months, according to news reports. The letter did not specify to which commentary the president objected. In an interview with CPJ, HAAC Vice President Edouad Loko said the program's content was unbalanced and failed to present differing opinions on the scandal. Yayi accused Actu Matin of "conveying information of a nature threatening public order, through hateful, biased, and seditious statements aimed at undermining unity and national cohesion," but did not provide details.

In the letter, the president also accused Canal 3 of "disturbing public order" for broadcasting on September 18 a press conference by Lionel Agbo, a former presidential adviser and spokesman, at which he criticized Yayi's handling of the dry port affair and called for criminal prosecutions. Agbo also asserted that corruption was pervasive in Yayi's entourage, according to local journalists and news reports.

Following the press conference, three of the accused officials filed a criminal defamation complaint against Agbo and Canal 3 Director Berthe Cakpossa, according to news reports. On Wednesday, the public prosecutor requested a judge sanction Cakpossa with a six-month suspended prison sentence for authorizing the broadcasting of statements deemed defamatory, La Nouvelle Tribune reported.

"President Boni Yayi, government regulators, and prosecutors are responding to discussion of alleged public corruption by trying to silence the messenger," said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita from New York. "We call on authorities to reverse the suspensions, drop the criminal prosecution, and allow Canal 3 to do its job by scrutinizing important matters of public interest."

André Dossa, the editor-in-chief of Canal 3, indicated that the HAAC action was unusual. "It is because the president wrote to them," Dossa told CPJ.

Cakpossa's lawyer has asked a higher court to review the basis of the criminal complaint against her and the next hearing is scheduled for December 19. Other news outlets also covered the press conference, but HAAC only sanctioned Canal 3, according to local journalists. HAAC's Loko told CPJ that Canal 3 exclusively broadcast Agbo's press conference in its entirety without censoring the corruption allegations, which he called unfounded. Other media houses only gave sparse mention of the press conference, he said.

Sous L'Arbre à Palabres is suspended from November 26 to February 25, 2013, while the suspension of Actu Matin's discussion forums runs from November 26 to December 9.
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