Investigative journalist Ignace Sossou will spend six months behind bars after an appeals court in the West African nation of Benin rejected calls from defense lawyers and free press advocates worldwide for his immediate release.
On Tuesday, the Court of Appeal in Cotonou sentenced Sossou to six months in jail. Taking into account time served, Sossou will be released on June 24 and must pay an $800 fine – ten times the average monthly salary of a journalist in Benin. The verdict overturned a decision in December 2019 that sentenced Sossou to 18 months in prison.
“No one can doubt the unfounded nature of the charges against Mr. Ignace Sossou,” Sossou’s three international lawyers, William Bourdon, Henri Thulliez and Elise Le Gall, said in a statement, calling the decision “absurd.”
The verdict “testifies to a serious attack on the freedom of the press,” the lawyers said, adding “this is the latest proof showing the absurd haste of a regime that is becoming increasingly authoritarian and that does not tolerate any dissenting voice.”
Sossou has been in prison since police arrested him in front of his family at sunrise in December 2019.
In a breakneck decision, a lower court jailed Sossou under Benin’s controversial digital media law after the journalist posted quotes on Twitter and Facebook from a speech by a local prosecutor, Mario Mètonou. Sossou’s posts were correct, according to an audio recording of the speech, but Mètonou filed charges under a law that criminalizes “false information.”
During the appeal hearing earlier this month, lawyers for the government argued that Sossou wanted only to sow discord between Mètonou and his superiors.
Mètonou did not respond to ICIJ’s repeated requests for comment.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists collaborated with Sossou as part of the Panama Papers and West Africa Leaks investigations.
Earlier this month, a collection of free press advocates and news organizations, including ICIJ, asked Benin authorities to release Sossou.