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Cote d’Ivoire26 November 2004

President Gbagbo urged to aid recovery of opposition press and bring order to state-owned media

(JPEG) Reporters Without Borders welcomed a statement from Ivorian president, Laurent Gbagbo, condemning the ransacking of opposition and independent newspaper offices on 4 November and the opening of an investigation to punish those responsible.

But the worldwide press freedom organisation called on him to go further to ensure these newspapers can circulate freely again and to restore order within the state-owed media.

"While it is shameful for this condemnation to come three weeks after the event, we hail Laurent Gbagbo’s apparent desire to see justice for dailies 24 Heures, Le Patriote, Le Nouveau Réveil, Le Jour, Le Front, Le Libéral nouveau and all newspapers silenced by the extremists," Reporters Without Borders said.

"We hope that these investigations will be thorough and that those responsible, whoever they may be, will be genuinely punished". But it added that to be consistent the Ivorian authorities should also establish professionalism within the state-owned media and guarantee that gagged publications went back on sale at the news-stands.

"Once it has received assurances from the head of state in person there should be no reason for distributor Edi Presse to refuse to deliver them," it added.

A final statement from the council of ministers’ meeting on 25 November, read on television by the government’s spokesman, said that the head of state condemned the destruction of opposition party headquarters and "the wrecking of some newspaper offices, violence against individuals, particularly foreigners, women and children."

"Such acts should not go unpunished," said the statement, adding that President Gbagbo had announced that investigations were "under way" to find those responsible for acts of destruction, pillage and physical assaults.

A wave of exceptional violence was unleashed against press freedom on 4 November, the same day that Ivorian armed forces launched an offensive against positions of former rebels in the north of country.

Pro-government militia ransacked some opposition newspapers, gagging part of the press (above photo : the entrance of Le Patriote), sabotaged FM broadcasts by Radio France Internationale (RFI), BBC and Africa N°1 and ousted the director-general of Radiotélévision ivoirienne (RTI) for a pro-government figure.

The state-owned media that enjoy a virtual monopoly in the capital Abidjan then turned themselves into propagandists for the president’s party and "Young Patriots" called for an anti-French uprising, putting out doom-laden and extremist news.

Journalists cast out of work from their gagged newspapers were forced to live more or less in hiding before managing to put out a combined free issue, distributed unofficially, on 22 November thanks to a return to calm in the financial capital.

Private distributor Edi Presse however still refused to distribute the papers, citing "constant threats to destroy your daily and to ransack offices". It also argued that other newspaper sellers and other partners" feared "their activities could be endangered" as a result.

Le Patriote, Le Jour, 24 Heures, Ivoire Matin, Le Libéral nouveau, Le Nouveau Réveil and Le Front produced a further joint issue on 26 November, with a cover price but still using an alternative distribution system.

Broadcasts of RFI and BBC on FM mysteriously returned to Abidjan on 24 November. Moreover there was a noticeable change of tone on the airwaves of state-owned RTI and Radio Côte d’Ivoire, which broadcast regular messages aimed at restoring calm.

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