Not so long ago, Benin was seen as a model democracy, where peaceful regime changes had been the norm since 1990, and civil liberties were highly respected. But with the election of Patrice Talon, a wealthy businessman who made his fortune in the cotton trade, this has rapidly changed. He has muzzled the press and banned political opponents, to such an extent, that the National Assembly doesn’t contain a single opposition member.
On the annual Global Press Freedom Index by Reporters sans Frontières, published this month, the country has fallen to the 121st place. In 2016, before Talon took office, Benin was still in 78th place and ten years earlier even in the top 25, one place behind Germany and a few places ahead of the United Kingdom.
Early February, we – a Beninese and a Dutch journalist – experienced this decline the hard way. We were doing research in the vicinity of Pendjari National Park in the north of the country, as part of a larger project on African Parks, a South Africa-based wildlife organisation which manages 19 nature reserves in 11 countries on the continent.
Long story short: we were arrested in the northern town of Tanguiéta for not notifying local authorities of our presence near the park. After being identified as journalists and cleared by a prosecutor, we were accused of espionage and transported from the north all the way to the capital city Cotonou in the south in approximately 70 different police vehicles, partly handcuffed. We were treated like criminals and spent four days and three nights in detention, sometimes behind locked doors, before the head of national police announced that the charges against us were dropped, after good work from the Dutch embassy in Benin.
Flore from Benin was free to go, while Olivier was deported on the first flight back to Europe.
African Parks, which chose not to cooperate in this research, says it didn’t play a role in our arrest and wasn’t even aware of our visit to north of Benin. The head of the Beninese police, Soumaïla Yaya, refused to answer our questions about the reasons and legal basis of our detention.
What happened to us illustrates how this former haven of freedom has quickly turned into a country where residents no longer dare to openly criticise power and where liberties are rapidly curtailed – a development that is also evident elsewhere in West Africa, for example in Mali, Guinea and Senegal.
Even the authorities are fearful. The main reason that we were only released at the very highest level is probably that Commissioners at lower levels did not dare to take responsibility. Suppose we had been exposed as real spies in Cotonou, they could have ended up in front of a judge themselves.
We’ve been hesitant if we should publish this story, especially because of the consequences it could have for Flore. But she insists we speak up. Previously in Benin, people had the right to say what they wanted and journalists were free to do their work. She is outraged that this is no longer the case and regrets (but understands) that most of her colleagues are silent out of fear.
The list of measures restricting press freedom and individual cases against journalists under Talon keeps growing. In 2017, the High Authority for Radio, Television and Communications banned a critical TV station from broadcasting and a year later the same happened for a newspaper with ties to the opposition.
We also aren’t the first journalists to fall foul of the authorities. Several others have, like Casimir Kpedjo in 2019. His alleged crime? In his articles, he had criticised a euro bond issued by the country and made a bleak analysis of the national economy, which was considered fake news by the authorities. His case was postponed many times and he is no longer in detention, but still waiting for a verdict. Four journalists who recently visited the north, like us, are also still waiting for a date to appear at this court.
A thorn in the eye of many journalists is the Digital Code, a set of laws and regulations officially aimed at providing a secure environment for all kinds of digital activities. However, for journalists and ordinary citizens, it means they have to be careful with everything they publish online, including on social media. Even sharing a link can lead to prosecution.
Investigative journalist Ignace Sossou knows all about it. He got a prison sentence of 18 months, of which he had to serve six, for three tweets. One of them was a mere quote from a prosecutor during a speech: “The Digital Code is like a weapon pointed at the temple of… journalists,” the prosecutor had said.
Our story was published in French last week, so people in Benin could read it. Despite the risk of sharing, we received numerous reactions from Beninese readers, mostly supportive. One of them was an apology to Olivier, from “a simple citizen whose name is unknown to any national authorities”. This student wrote: “In the name of my country Benin, I hope that one day, you will be welcomed by the extreme hospitality we have always promoted towards foreigners.”
This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.
African Parks: call out to sources
Olivier van Beemen, the author of Heineken in Africa: A Multinational Unleashed, is currently doing research on African Parks. He would like to get in touch with people who work or have worked for/with African Parks, even if it is a while ago, in Benin or anywhere else. He’s interested in all sorts of stories – good or bad, serious analyses or anecdotes, successes or failures – and conducts his research without any prejudice. If desired, anonymity will be guaranteed. Would you like to share your story? Please contact Olivier at [email protected]