Freedom of the press and the right to say what I want, when I want, is something I take for granted. Despite the many problems that plague American media, our right to free speech is well protected. The press, while beholden to its corporate interests, does not fear jail or sanctions for telling the truth, nor for expressing a negative opinion about the current administration.
On November 3, CAPP FM, one of Benin’s oldest and certainly one of the most respected radio stations aired a program highly critical of the administration and several politicians. The administration reacted immediately, accusing the radio host of slander and inciting violence. The state has permanently removed her right to appear on the air in Benin. CAPP FM has been suspended for a month and has publicly apologized. If they had not apologized or had defended the woman, they risked having their license permanently revoked by the state.
Mme. VALDAVE Emailia hosts a religious show on CAPP FM. The following texts are those that the High Audiovisuel Communication Authority determined problematic (quoted directly from the text of the decision against the radio*):
» Que le sang de Jésus-Christ de Nazareth coule sur tous les hommes maintenant. Coule dans tous les services de l’Etat, les institutions de la République, les institutions étrangères, les représentants diplomatiques pour purifier ce pays le Bénin de toute souillure, de toute abomination, de tout esprit humain qui ne glorifie pas le nom de Jésus Christ de Nazareth, de tout esprit contraire au plan de DIEU pour ce pays »
That blood of Jesus Christ of Nazereth runs over men. Runs in all the departments of the State, the institutions of the Republic, foreign institutions, diplomatic representatives, to purify this country, the Benin, of all sin, of all abomination, of all human spirit that doesn’t glorifiy Christ, of all spirit against the plan of God for this country.
» Qu’avons-nous compris? Nous avons compris que vous [YAYI Boni] n’avez pas été quelqu’un avant de devenir quelque chose dans ce pays le Bénin. Nous avons compris que depuis trois ans nous vivons au Bénin, l’épisode d’une bande d’opportunistes en aventure; nous avons compris que vous êtes, non pardon que tu es scorpion. Mais pourquoi un scorpion? Le venin du scorpion est renfermé dans sa queue donc doux au départ, tendre au début mais féroce à la fin. C’est ce que tu es. Un scorpion qui commence bien, qui trompe au début et qui montre après son vrai visage »
What have we understood? We have come to understand that you [YAYI Boni] were no one before becoming something in this country, the Benin. We have understand that, during the last three years in Benin, we have lived an episode of a band of opportunistic adventurers; we have understand that you are, without pardon, a scorpion. And why a scorpion? The venom of a scorpion is locked up in its tail, so sweet in the beginning, tender in the beginning, but ferocious at the end. That’s what you are. A scorpion that starts well, who convinces in the beginning, and shows his true face afterwards.
Incendiary? Sure. Inciting violence? Well, not exactly. Television stations have been airing relevant bits of the radio show, and the clips used by the tribunal to judge the radio host and CAPP FM. Bizarrely, the clips don’t even appear to be controversial. It is true that in many ways life in Benin is worse in 2009 than it was in 2006. It is true that business in Cotonou has boomed, but the rural poor have been largely left behind. It is true that the state is more corrupt now than it was under Kérékou.
Benin has a long tradition of intellectualism, scholarship, and freedom of expression. Even during 17 years of dictatorship, the Beninese press was allowed to criticize the administration. Elections were held in 1991, and Benin saw Africa’s first peaceful transition between communist dictatorship and functioning democracy. YAYI Boni campaigned on change. “This can change. This must change. This will change.” Le changement lit the country on fire. In 2006, free and fair elections elected the Dr. Thomas Boni YAYI to power, with 75% suffrage.
Since 2006, freedom of expression and freedom of the press has been radically inhibited in Benin. Whether jailing journalists and editors who speak out against the administration, or sanctioning television and radio stations, the administration comes down hard on those who dare criticize.
Two weeks ago, Reporters sans frontières (Reporters Without Borders) published their annual freedom of the press index. Benin has fallen from 23rd in 2006 to 72 in 2009. During the run-up to elections in 2011, I have a hard time imagining that things will get any better.
More information (in French, of course):
*Full disclosure: the Nokoue is a client.