Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Benin received a downward trend arrow due to harsh, punitive measures carried out against members of the press.
In a departure from what has been a good record for press freedom in recent years, courts in Benin jailed two journalists and two others faced the prospect of imprisonment in 2004. The government continued efforts to fight child trafficking and corruption. About 80 judges faced trial on charges of embezzlement.
Benin was once the center of the ancient kingdom of Dahomey, the name by which the country was known until 1975. Six decades of French colonial rule ended in 1960, and Mathieu Kerekou took power 12 years later, ending successive coups and countercoups. He imposed a one-party state under the Benin People's Revolutionary Party and pursued Marxist-Leninist policies. However, by 1990, economic hardships and rising internal unrest had forced Kerekou to agree to a national conference that ushered in democracy. The transition culminated in his defeat by Nicephore Soglo in the 1991 presidential election, and the country's human rights record subsequently improved. Kerekou made a comeback in the 1996 presidential poll.
Presidential elections in 2001 were marred by technical and administrative problems, as well as a boycott by the second- and third-place finishers in the second round of voting. Former president Soglo and Adrien Houngbedji claimed fraud after they won 29 percent and 14 percent, respectively, in the first round of voting, compared with incumbent president Kerekou's 47 percent. The boycott gave Kerekou a solid victory, with 84 percent of the vote in the second round of voting, in which he ended up running against an obscure fourth-place candidate. Several members of the Autonomous National Electoral Commission had stepped down in protest before the second round of voting, citing a lack of transparency and poor administration of the election.
In March 2003, Benin held National Assembly elections that gave the ruling-party coalition a majority in parliament for the first time since multiparty democracy was introduced more than a decade ago. The ruling party and its allies hold 65 seats, compared with 18 seats for opposition parties. Fourteen political parties participated in the elections. Voter turnout was low, and there were some logistical problems, but the polls were considered free and fair. Opposition party members had accused the ruling party of intimidation ahead of the elections, and the government banned "anti-fraud brigades" that had been organized by the opposition.
The legislative polls followed local elections that represented the last step in Benin's decentralization process and helped reinstate voter confidence following the flawed presidential elections in 2001. Pro-Kerekou parties came out ahead in the local polls.
As part of an investigation into misused government funds, more than 20 judges were put on trial in January on charges of embezzling millions of dollars. About 80 court and Finance Ministry officials were charged in the scandal. For their part, judges went on strike during the year after accusing the government of interfering in judicial matters.
Child trafficking continued to be a problem in Benin in 2004, although the government set up a national child protection committee to oversee the fight against the practice. Authorities during the year intercepted a number of children on their way to being smuggled to work abroad, and repatriated others who had been sent to Benin to work as laborers.
Benin is a poor country whose economy is based largely on subsistence agriculture. An economic crisis gripped the nation in 2004 with prices of staple goods skyrocketing. Some blame trade restrictions imposed by neighboring Nigeria, while others accuse the government of corruption and incompetence.
Citizens of Benin can change their government democratically. Benin held its first genuine multiparty elections in 1991 and now has dozens of political parties.
Historically, Benin has been divided between northern and southern ethnic groups, which are the main roots of current political parties; the South has enjoyed more advanced development. Northern ethnic groups enlisted during President Mathieu Kerekou's early years in power still dominate the military, although efforts have been made in recent years to rectify this situation.
Benin was ranked 77 out of 146 countries surveyed in the 2004 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
Harsh libel laws have been used against journalists, but constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression are largely respected in practice. An independent and pluralistic press publishes articles highly critical of both government and opposition leaders and policies. Benin has dozens of daily newspapers, magazines, and private radio stations. It also has at least two private television stations.
Press freedom, however, suffered a setback in 2004. In August, Patrick Adjamonsi, publication director of the independent daily newspaper L'Aurore was arrested on defamation charges and imprisoned. The charges stem from an article he wrote in 2003, which suggested that corruption might have been involved when the state communications authority disbursed government subsidies for the private press. Adjamonsi was initially sentenced to six months in jail and won an appeal for a retrial. Jean-Baptiste Hounkonnou, publication director of the daily newspaper Le Nouvel Esor, was jailed in March after being sentenced to six months in prison for defamation. He was released in May on appeal. Two other journalists with the private newspaper La Pyramide were scheduled to go to trial in October. John Akintola and Christophe Hodonou are being charged with defamation. The New York - based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the punitive measures were troubling because the government had generally been tolerant of criticism and there had been a growing and vibrant media in the country.
The government respects religious and academic freedom.
Freedom of assembly is respected in Benin, and requirements for permits and registration are often ignored. Numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights groups operate without hindrance. The right to organize and join unions is constitutionally guaranteed and respected in practice. Strikes are legal, and collective bargaining is common.
The judiciary is generally considered to be independent, but it is inefficient and susceptible to corruption. The executive retains important powers but generally respects court decisions. The Constitutional Court has demonstrated independence, but was accused of bias in favor of the president during the 2001 presidential elections. Prison conditions are harsh, marked by poor diet and inadequate medical care.
Human rights are largely respected, although concern has been raised about the operation of anticrime vigilante groups and the failure of the police to curb vigilantism. Smuggling children into neighboring countries for domestic service and meager compensation is reportedly widespread. Many, especially young girls, suffer abuse. Efforts are under way in Benin to fight child abuse and child trafficking through media campaigns and education.
Although the constitution provides for equality for women, they enjoy fewer educational and employment opportunities than men, particularly in rural areas. In family matters, in which traditional practices prevail, their legal rights are often ignored. After much debate, a family code that in part strengthened property and inheritance rights for women was approved by the National Assembly in 2002. The law was reviewed in 2004 after judges declared certain aspects of it too harsh and unconstitutional. The revised law tolerates the practice of polygamy, but monogamy remains the only legal form of marriage. The National Assembly passed a law against female genital mutilation in 2003, and NGOs have been working to raise awareness about the health dangers of the practice.