Seizing control of the state media was one of the linchpins of President Laurent Gbagbo’s failed bid to recover all of Cote d’Ivoire’s territory. In just one morning, on 4 November, supporters of the president and his party succeeded in hijacking Radiotélévision ivoirienne (RTI) and Radio Côte d’Ivoire (RCI).
A new staff of presenters and journalists ready to take editorial orders was put in place. From this day on and throughout rioting that shook Abidjan for nearly a week, TV and radio broadcasts descended into peddling propaganda, relaying incitement to murder, putting out lies and orders to foment violence in the street.
Even if the tone on the airwaves has been somewhat modified, activism still holds sway within the Ivorian state-owned media and the "parallel" management imposed on RTI on the 4 November is still in place, completely illegally.
"In a democracy nothing can justify a political clan submitting state-owed media to its diktats", said Reporters Without Borders.
"RTI and RCI need to operate again in a professional and calm atmosphere and free from government control for the return to normality heralded by the Ivorian authorities not to appear as a sham," the worldwide press freedom organisation said.
"The legitimate team, led by Kébé Yacouba, should be allowed to operate normally again as soon as possible, in line with the job entrusted to it by the president of the republic in January 2004. In addition all public media staff should be provided with the means to work in safety."
A general manager put in place under escort
At daybreak on 4 November, on the orders of President Laurent Gbagbo, Cote d’Ivoire’s national armed forces (Fanci) launched operation "Dignity". Their objective was to forcibly retake the north of the country, in the hands of insurgents since 19 September 2002.
At around 9am the same day, a significant military detachment took up a position in the courtyard of RTI, in the Abidjan’s Cocody quarter. Civilian vehicles followed in their wake. Out of them stepped Georges Aboké, the channel’s former managing director, Jean-Paul Dahily, its former general secretary and an advisor to the president, and Silvère Nebout, the head of state’s communications advisor. They were escorted to the top floor of the building where the management offices are located
Then in an atmosphere of open rebellion, Jean-Paul Dahily was installed as managing director of RTI. A sociology graduate from the French university of Louis-Lumière in Lyon, holder of a second-year journalism training certificate, he was previously head of communications for the Ivorian family welfare agency (AIBEF). He was appointed to junior management of the broadcast monitoring and evaluation body and then general secretary of RTI when his friend Georges Aboké was appointed to the channel’s management.
The two men were dismissed after Guillaume Soro, Communications minister in the national reconciliation government and secretary-general of the former rebels of the New Forces (FN) narrowly escaped a lynching at the hands of "Young Patriots" while visiting RTI head office on 27 June 2003. Sacked by the government, then reinstated by the Supreme Court, Jean-Paul Dahily and Georges Aboké finally left their posts in January 2004 in favour of journalist Kébé Yacouba, appointed by Guillaume Soro at the end of a political-legal trial of strength with the presidency.
A former communications head for the UN in Angola, Kébé Yacouba was also part of the management team of the government daily Fraternité Matin and founded a daily that has since closed, IvoirSoir. Before joining RTI, he chaired the board of governors of Cote D’Ivoire’s New Society press and publishers (SNEPCI).
His appointment, along with that of writer and municipal councillor for the opposition Rally for the Republicans (RDR) Maurice Bandaman to head RTI’s board, provoked strong protests from the channel’s staff, some of whom interrupted a live news broadcast to contest the legitimacy of the new management team.
Despite all this, following his appointment, Yacouba had succeeded in winning over the staff, not least through ensuring they were regularly paid at the end of each month.
Journalists replaced, programming rescheduled
But by mid-morning on 4 November, Kébé Yacouba and Maurice Bandaman no longer controlled the media of which they were the official managers. Under armed protection and with the support of loyalist militia dug in around the building, Jean-Paul Dahily got to work filling key jobs with loyal staff. Co-ordination of the two RTI channels (La Première and TV2) was entrusted to Issa Sangaré Yéresso, former boss of TV2 in the Aboké era. All heads of news programmes were replaced. Pierre Ignace Tressia, a former producer close to presidential party and number two at RCI, was appointed head of national radio, replacing former director Eloi Oulaï.
Programming was completely rescheduled. Journalists dismissed from RTI were back on the airwaves. The next day, the pro-government daily Le Courrier d’Abidjan trumpeted: "RTI is under the orders of Jean-Paul Dahily. The liberation of Cote d’Ivoire necessarily depends on the liberation of the state media. The takeover at RTI is the first battle in the struggle for real press freedom."
Undesirable journalists and contributors started coming in for mistreatment. On 4 November, Koné Lanciné, the channel’s editor and general secretary of the minority staff union of RTI (SYPERTI), told Reporters Without Borders that he took three phone calls in his office advising him "to get out of there". His name was reportedly on a "blacklist" of journalists to be removed. Fearing for his safety, he immediately left work and has not returned since. He recounted that a few minutes later a group of "Young Patriots" burst into his office looking for him.
On 5 November, a sports journalist, Julien N’Guessan, also general secretary of the majority news staff union (SYNINFO), was physically attacked on arrival for work by a group of "Young Patriots" who had set up encampments in front of the RTI offices. Some 20 of them threatened to lynch him saying they were "fed up with his union" and tried to bundle him into a car. Police had to forcefully intervene to stop his abduction. "We know where to find you", one of the young demonstrators shouted.
After going to his office, N’Guessan received further threats and had to be taken out of the building by police officer friends. He did not return home "for at least a week". Apart from the two trade union leaders, the new management viewed other RTI staff as "suspect" and they were afraid to return to work.
According to information obtained by Reporters Without Borders, they were: Séraphin Kouamé, technician and trade unionist, journalist presenters Habiba Dembelé, Viviane Ahimain, Amadou Doukouré and Fofana Lassiné, and former general secretary of the channel Lazare Aka Sayé, together with several administrative staff.
Jean-Paul Dahily gave an interview from his new office at RTI on 18 November. Questioned about anti-French propaganda broadcast on national television and radio, he advanced the simple argument, "Do people want a country at war to stifle public opinion? It is not journalists who are staying these things, it is the people".
But the RTI strongman nevertheless had to admit that, "radio and television are a government weapon in times of war".
To date, no official steps taken by those opposing the hijacking of RTI have had any effect. On 23 November, the chairman of RTI’s board of directors, Maurice Bandaman, sent a letter calling for Jean-Paul Dahily’s departure and that of his team. He warned staff that sanctions would be taken against anyone who took orders from them.
"Kébé Yacouba is and remains managing director of RTI, wrote Bandaman. "President of the Republic Laurent Gbagbo personally confirmed this to him by telephone a few days ago." On 29 November, the channel’s joint trade union committee met and sent a letter to RTI’s board. In the open letter, Julien N’Guessan and Koné Lanciné, speaking for their respective unions said, "RTI ’s terms of reference are being flouted by everything that is happening on the channel. Nor is any of it in line with the ethics of our profession."
The two organisations called on the board of governors to take steps so that radio and television could "recover their equilibrium".
Indeed, on 4 December, the "Young Patriots", positioned around the headquarters of national radio and television to "protect it from possible attack by the French Army" struck camp but the "parallel" management remained in place.