Two journalists killed, dozens of others arrested, attacked or threatened, and thousands of copies of newspaper destroyed or confiscated - press freedom has not been battered so much in Côte d’Ivoire for some time. The responsibility was shared by the authorities, the rebels and some news media, which did not hesitate to cast oil on the flames throughout the year.
An Ivorian journalist was killed at the beginning of 2003 and a foreign press correspondent was gunned down by a policeman in October. These two tragic events encapsulated the situation for journalists working in Côte d’Ivoire - a complete lack of security underpinned by the impunity enjoyed by both the regular security forces and the many rebel movements and militia present in the country.
A significant part of the blame lay with the central government. Despite many appeals from organisations that defend freedom of expression and international bodies such as the United Nations and the European Union, neither President Laurent Gbagbo nor the government of national reconciliation that was established in 2003 took sufficient measures to ensure respect for press freedom and the safety of journalists.
The rebels who had established themselves in the north of the country in September and who were officially renamed the "New Forces" after joining the government, also sought to dominate the news media, censoring the state TV broadcaster in the regions they control and not hesitating to target local journalists who showed any sympathy for President Gbagbo.
Most regrettable of all was the role of certain Ivorian news media themselves in encouraging the climate of hostility that developed in Côte d’Ivoire towards journalists, especially foreign correspondents. Daily newspapers that support the government such as Le National, L’il du peuple and Notre Voie never ceased to publish articles stirring up hatred against the international press, calling it the "enemy of Côte d’Ivoire" and "accomplice of the rebels destroying the country." The opposition press, especially Le Patriote, regularly responded in kind, providing grist for the mill of the pro-government media.
The signing of the Marcoussis accords in France on 24 January 2003 nonetheless bode well. The text of the accords was scathing about the "incitements to hate and xenophobia spread by certain media." A few weeks later, the accords follow-up committee, headed by the UN secretary-general’s special representative in Côte d’Ivoire, Albert Tévoédjré, managed to obtain an end to the jamming of the signals of the international radio stations - RFI, BBC and Africa No.1 - which had begun in September 2002. In another positive development, the employees of the state TV broadcaster who had been fired a few months earlier because of their sympathies - real or imagined - with the opposition were invited back to work on 11 February.
But the appointment at the start of March of Guillaume Soro, the secretary-general of the Patriotic Movement of Côte d’Ivoire (MPCI), the main rebel movement, to head the communication ministry sparked an outcry in the state-owned news media and newspaper supporting the president. "Words fail to describe the insult and humiliation to the Ivorian media." Le National wrote the day after Soro’s appointment. Words did not fail Notre Voie, the daily newspaper of the ruling Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), when referring to the new minister: "The rapist, the safe-breaking disemboweller of pregnant women, the murderer who slakes his thirst with the blood of his victims, the little good-for-nothing who for one moment thought he was God on earth... has understood that he is also mortal, very mortal."
The media war was under way again. Hate messages and the most elementary breaches of professional ethics and rules of conduct were thereafter daily fare. The finger was once again pointed not only at the French but also the other foreign communities present in the country. Two of the headlines run by Notre Voie in May were: "Another genocide of the Bété is being prepared" (referring to the Bété ethnic group) and "The Burkinabes bring their victims together before cutting their throats" (referring to the people of neighbouring Burkina Faso).
When a Reporters Without Borders delegation met President Gbagbo in April, he said he had "solutions to all of Côte d’Ivoire’s problems except the problem of the press."
Two journalists killed
The body of Kloueu Gonzreu, a correspondent for the state-owned news agency Agence Ivoirienne de Presse (AIP), was found on 19 March 2003 in the western Toulépleu region. Gonzreau, who was also head of the local section of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), had been reported missing on 11 January. Several sources said he had been detained by Liberians fighting on the side of the pro-government forces. In its 30 January issue, the pro-government newspaper Notre Pays had accused Gonzreu of making "statements favourable to the aggressors." The newspaper added: "The population of Toulépleu continues to question this figure." The authorities did not conduct any investigation into his death.
Jean Hélène, 48, the correspondent of Radio France Internationale (RFI) in Côte d’Ivoire, was shot dead outside police headquarters in Abidjan on 21 October by a policeman, Sgt. Séry Dago Théodore, who was immediately detained. Hélène had gone there to interview government opponents who had just been released after several days in detention. President Gbagbo, Prime Minister Seydou Diarra and the French ambassador, Gildas Le Lidec, all visited the scene of the murder the same evening. Two days later, state prosecutor Ange Kessy said Théodore shot Hélène "deliberately." The autopsy confirmed that he was shot in the left temple.
According to the findings of the initial investigation, Théodore tried to stop Hélène entering police headquarters, struck him with his Kalashnikov and then opened fire, thereby disobeying his superiors who had told him, minutes before, that Hélène was a journalist and should be allowed to do his work. The murder was brought before the judicial authorities in France, where Reporters Without Borders was registered as a civil party in the case. Reporters Without Borders also had itself registered as a civil party in the case in Côte d’Ivoire on 27 November, while on a fact-finding mission there.
A journalist imprisoned
René Dessonh, a reporter with the daily Soir Info, was arrested on 6 February in Kouibly (30 km from the western town of Man) by rebels of the Movement for Justice and Peace (MJP). He had gone to Man the day before to cover a meeting of the three Ivorian rebel movements. But, according to his newspaper, youths accused him of spying after recognising him at a roadblock. During the three days he was held, he was reportedly blindfolded, his hands were tied, and he was drugged. In an interview for Soir Info after his release on 9 February, he said he was traumatised by the episode and the death threats he received while detained. He also said the rebels did not explain why he had been abducted.
Two journalists detained
Anne Boher, a French journalist working for the British news agency Reuters, was detained by government security forces on 6 January 2003 while reporting in the field in San Pedro (450 km west of Abidjan). She was brought back to Abidjan for interrogation before being released the next day. The national radio station described her as a spy for the Patriotic Movement of Côte d’Ivoire (MPCI).
Baba Coulibaly Nicolas, a correspondent for the news agency Panapress in Bouaké (the MPCI’s headquarters) and a stringer for Reuters, was detained by government forces on the morning of 15 January on the outskirts of Yamoussoukro and was taken to a Republican Guard camp without being given any explanation. At the time of his detention, he was returning from Man where he had written several reports, including one on the discovery of several mass graves. He was released later the same day.
Journalists physically attacked
Demonstrators ransacked the studios of privately-owned Radio Nostalgie in the Plateau neighbourhood of Abidjan on 26 January 2003, smashing windows and office equipment. Owned by Hamed Bakayoko, a supporter of government opponent Alassane Dramane Ouattara, the station had already been wrecked by armed men in October 2002.
The premises of the privately-owned daily Le Jour were also ransacked on the morning of 26 January by pro-government activists known as "young patriots," who were hostile to the Marcoussis accords. They looted and wrecked all the equipment and doused the premises with petrol without setting it on fire. Two of the newspaper’s contributors were accosted by the mob as they were arriving for work. Shortly before the attack, Le Jour had published two investigative reports on "death squads," suggesting that the government security forces were involved.
A few hours later, demonstrators threw stones at the car of an Agence France-Presse (AFP) journalist in Cocody, a residential neighbourhood of Abidjan. N’Guessan N’Guessan, a photographer with the daily Fraternité Matin, was also attacked by young demonstrators in the Abidjan’s Plateau neighbourhood. As a result of these incidents, many dailies were unable to appear, including Le Jour, Le Patriote and Le Réveil.
A TV crew from the French channel France 2, which wanted to cover the arrival of the new prime minister, Seydou Diarra, was pursued on 31 January by students and "young patriots" who threw stones at their vehicle, damaging it.
Gendarmes beat Reuters cameramen Emmanuel Braun and Alain Amontchi on 2 February, tearing their clothes, while they were covering a demonstration prompted by the death of comedian Camara "H" Yêrêfê.
AFP photographer Georges Gobet was attacked the same day while covering a march by members of the Wê community in Adjamé, a poor neighbourhood of Abidjan. Some demonstrators threw stones at him, others insulted him.
A France 2 TV crew and AFP reporters were insulted and attacked by soldiers and civilians while covering a press conference by President Gbagbo in Abidjan on 1 March. Accused of being "enemies of Côte d’Ivoire" and of "selling out" the country, the journalists were forced to withdraw.
Reporter Ibrahima Koné and photographer Marc Kablan of the daily 24 Heures were beaten by gendarmes in Abidjan on 5 July while covering operations to rehouse residents of a poor neighbourhood. Their equipment was confiscated.
Alakagni Hala of the daily Fraternité Matin was covering the arrest of a Moroccan on 28 July when two policemen manhandled him and took him off to a police station. When fellow journalist Doua Gouly went to enquire about Hala, he was also attacked by a police officer who accused him of raising his voice. Gouly was undressed by force and thrown in a cell. The two journalists were released that evening.
Reporters and photographers who went to cover a press conference on 25 January 2003 by Prime Minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan were threatened and insulted by supporters of the ruling Ivorian Popular Front (FPI).
Police threatened to kill a France 2 TV crew and an AFP photographer in Abidjan on 3 March. The journalists were following a convoy of French soldiers as part of a report they were preparing when a police vehicle blocked their way. Aiming their rifles at the journalists, the police shouted: "You there, you are going to be killed." A senior police officer intervened to calm things down and he let the journalists continue on their way after checking their accreditation.
A group of gendarmes claiming to be supporters of Rear Admiral Lamine Fadika threatened Denis Kah Zion, the publisher of the daily Le Nouveau Réveil, and members of his staff on 17 September after he put out a signed editorial earlier the same day that was very critical of Fadika. He received another death threat at the newspaper’s offices on 30 September from two men who criticised the positions he was taking "in the national debate." The newspaper did not appear the next day.
Fofana Mambé of the daily Soir Info received death threats by telephone at the start of October because of an article about the arrest of two gendarmes who were accused of extorting money from civilians by threatening them with their service firearms.
Harassment and pressure
Adolphe Zady, the magazine programmes editor of the state radio broadcaster, RTI, was suspended by the management on 7 February, a day after a studio guest claimed on the air that Henri Konan Bédié - the president of the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI), the former ruling party - had financed the rebel movement in the west of the country, the Ivorian Popular Movement of the Great West (MPIGO).
The daily Le Nouveau Réveil ran two pages of alarmist announcements in its 10 May issue under the headlines: "Press freedom is still threatened" and "The [ruling] FPI wants to murder democracy." Publisher Denis Kah Zion, a member of the leadership of the PDCI (the former ruling party), said his newspaper was the target of serious threats from "young patriots" (pro-government activists), who were marching outside its offices. He also said he had received telephone threats and requested police protection.
The communications unit at the office of the president on 13 October asked three journalists with the opposition newspaper Le Patriote to come and surrender the ID cards giving them access to the presidential palace. The unit accused journalists Yves Maurice Abiet, Charles Sanga and Pélagie Kouamé of "professional misconduct" in a report three days earlier implicating the president’s aide de camp in a coup attempt in neighbouring Burkina Faso.
Staunch Gbagbo supporters known as "young patriots" obstructed the distribution of opposition newspapers to news stands the next day. Their leader, Charles Blé Goudé, said these newspapers were "the mouthpiece of the rebels in the loyalist zones." In the course of the following weeks, thousands of copies of Le Patriote, Le Front, 24 Heures, Le Jour and Le Nouveau Réveil were destroyed by "young patriots" on the streets of Abidjan and other southern cities.