A wave of indignation sparked by a viral video of an altercation between a French officer and Togolese journalists forced the French Minister of Defense to sanction the French lieutenant. Togolese journalists were outraged, on August 10, to see French officer Romuald Letondot, transferred by the French Ministry of Defense to the Chief of the Staff of the Armed Forces of Togo, intimidate and publicly threaten journalist Didier Ledoux while he was doing his job in the streets of Lomé. Ledoux writes for local daily paper Liberté.
Local journalists were also very disappointed initially in the lack of reaction from France condemning this flagrant violation of the freedom of the press.
Late in the evening after the altercation, the French Embassy in Togo released a statement, which Togolese media called "laconic", that made no mention of the gravity of the acts, attitude and words of the officer.
"There is nothing much to do except take the hit," said Zeus Aziadouvo, Director of Liberté. “The Togolese authorities will rally behind the Embassy of France and wait for this to die down."
According to Aziadouvo, diplomats behave just as the authorities in Togo do. They do not move or say anything, and their communication is opaque.
Ordinarily in Togo, things would have gotten stuck at this stage. France wouldn’t have reacted any further. Another violation of press freedoms would have been overlooked. Fortunately, however, Noel Kokou Tadegnon, Reuters correspondent in Togo, filmed the altercation. While Ledoux’s photos were deleted, Tadegnon’s video survived.
And unfortunately for Letondot and France, the video has raced around the world.
Posted first on the account of Tadegnon on Facebook, the video was then posted on YouTube through LeTogovi's account on Wednesday morning (August 11).
"I'm just posting it to amplify its spread because we’re mostly unable to make ourselves heard as far as the political situation of Togo is concerned, "argued LeTogovi.
Before the end of the day, the video had already been viewed over 100,000 times.
According to Tadegnon, who made the video, whenever there is this kind of incident, the mainstream media refuse the images.
"I’m not going to propose this to Reuters, for whom I work often. I'll throw it directly on Facebook. It has been much more successful than if it was broadcasted on the news agency!" Tadegnon declared.
Rue 89, a French website reported the video quickly, and it was relayed again by Yahoo.fr Wednesday morning. The story was then picked up by Le Monde and L'Express, two major French daily news outlets.
The video continued to draw strong reaction from media professionals and organizations today.
The editor of Liberté, deplored the “aggressive and colonial behavior” of the French officer. "It exceeded the limits," he told reporters.
The Union of the Independent Journalists of Togo (UJIT) “vigorously” denounced "this flagrant hindrance to the journalistic work."
The New Human Rights International Association (NDH-Togo), also condemned "this barbaric and unworthy act of a French officer, whether he was an adviser to the Chief of Staff of the Army or not”.
Given the extent of the media coverage of lieutenant Letondot’s behavior, France finally had to respond. On Wednesday evening Letondot and Ledoux met at the Embassy of France in Togo.
"I actually apologized to Didier Ledoux,” Letondot told L’Express.fr. “What is unfortunate is that I’m ending my stay here in Togo, in fifteen days, in such a way.”
It still took one more day and an additional 40,000 hits on the video by Thursday morning, before France officially denounced the officer’s actions.
"The Ministry of Defense did not recognize itself in the words nor in the behavior of this French officer. Freedom of the press is a core value," a representative of the French military said to L’Express.fr.
"A disciplinary sanction of ten days of arrest was handed down yesterday to Lt. Col. Romuald Letondot for undermining the reputation of the French army," said the deputy spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Christine Fages, during a regular press briefing. He “is also recalled immediately to Paris," Le Monde reported on Friday morning.
Despite the seeming reconciliation, on Friday, August 13, Didier Ledoux announced that he will lodge a complaint against Letondot. Didier was "shocked" after reading an interview Letondot granted to L’Express.fr where Letondot claimed to have been a "victim" and "have been trapped” by the events on the video.
"I thought the apologies Mr. Letondot offered me at the Embassy of France in Togo were genuine and were those of a man who, with a little hindsight, admits to having sinned. But I am sorry to see that this was pure hypocrisy. "
And, meanwhile, the video continues to collect hits and shine a light on the challenges to press freedom in Togo. As of this writing, the video has been viewed mroe than 720,000 times.