French colonel punished after threat to Togo journalist

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France confined a senior military officer to quarters for 10 days on Friday after video footage appeared online showing him threatening a Togolese press photographer in Lome.

Lieutenant Colonel Romuald Letondot has been recalled from Togo to France and punished for "bringing the French army into disrepute", foreign ministry spokeswoman Christine Fages told reporters.

Letondot has apologised to journalist Didier Ledoux, who works for the Togolese weekly Liberte, but the video has been viewed more than 500,000 times on YouTube and the scandal has tarnished France's image in Africa.

The officer, who was employed by the French foreign ministry as an advisor to the Togolese military, is seen telling Ledoux to erase pictures from his camera and ordering Togolese riot police to arrest him.

"Do you want someone to strike your camera, or what?" he demands, using the patronising "tu" form of address. "I don't give a damn if you're press, erase the photo please, otherwise I'll take the camera myself.

"Do you know who I am? I'm an adviser to the chief of staff of land forces," he declares, threatening to summon the Togolese president's commando guard force "to bloody well restore some order round here."

When the journalist protests he was just doing his job, the French officer turns to one of a number of uniformed Togolese riot police at the scene and, still using the insulting "tu" form, barks: "You, put him in jail."

France's West African colonies were given independence 50 years ago, but Paris has maintained close diplomatic, military and commercial ties with many of them and is often accused of adopting a high-handed attitude.

The Paris-based media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders condemned the colonel's attitude which it said reflected a too common "lack of respect and understanding of the work of the press."

The argument erupted after the French officer's vehicle was held up during an opposition protest in the streets of Lome and Ledoux took his picture.

Letondot told France 2 public television that he had got out of his official car to show a Togolese policeman that it had been damaged by a stone-throwing demonstrator and was surprised to be photographed.

"The photo could have been misinterpreted," he said. "I became annoyed. The idea was to prevent a stolen picture. I have apologised to Didier Ledoux. It's a shame that my time in Togo has to finish like this."

Ledoux told Reporters Without Borders: "I accepted his apologies, although I'm not sure they were sincere. You have to ask what the world is coming to when such basic rules of democracy are broken in this way.

"My colleagues have advised me to lodge a lawsuit. I am going to discuss this with press freedom campaigners in Lome."

© 2010 AFP

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