Area: 322,460 sq.km.
Head of state: President Laurent Gbagbo
There is nothing out of the ordinary about a journalist being killed in Côte d’Ivoire. That alone tells you how disastrous things have become for the press in a country that has been cut in two since the insurrection that began on 19 September 2002.
Police Sgt. Théodore Séri Dago was sentenced on 22 January 2004 to 17 years in prison for the "deliberate homicide" with mitigating circumstances of Radio France Internationale correspondent Jean Hélène three months earlier. Dago was also expelled from the police, fined 500,000 CFA francs (about 760 euros) and stripped of his civil rights for 10 years. Reporters Without Borders - which was a plaintiff in the trial together with RFI - said it was satisfied by the verdict and hoped the trial had served to shed light on the different areas of responsibility in Hélène’s murder.
Reporters Without Borders singled out a number of Ivorian news media whose messages of extremism and hate had helped foster a climate of hostility toward foreign journalists. It also blamed political leaders who had never tried to calm things down. Reporters Without Borders had issued several appeals to the president and other politicians during 2003 to call on the news media that supported them to put an end to these messages. None of them responded to the appeals.
French-Canadian reporter Guy-André Kieffer disappeared three months later after contacting individuals close to the government. He was seen for the last time in an Abidjan shopping-centre at around 1 p.m. on 16 April. Aged 54, married and the father of two children, Kieffer covered business, finance and commodities. He had worked for the French business daily La Tribune from 1984 until early 2002, when he based himself in Abidjan, freelancing for the Paris-based newsletter La Lettre du Continent and several Ivorian publications.
Michel Legré, the brother-in-law of President Laurent Gbagbo’s wife, Simone, was charged in connection with Kieffer’s disappearance on 28 May. The charges were complicity in kidnapping, illegal detention and murder, as well as defamation. He was placed in Abidjan prison where he reportedly enjoyed a degree of freedom. In October he was formally questioned on suspicion of kidnapping and illegal detention by French investigating judge Patrick Ramaël in response to complaints by the Kieffer family and Reporters Without Borders. During these hearings, he implicated several persons in senior government circles and in President Gbagbo’s entourage. The investigation is still under way.
Antoine Massé, a local correspondent for the pro-government daily Le Courrier d’Abidjan, was killed on 7 November during clashes between members of the French peacekeeping "Force Licorne," the Ivorian army and demonstrators. It seems that Massé was with a group of demonstrators and Ivorian soldiers who were blocking the eastward advance of a French convoy towards Abidjan. Violent clashes ensued in which Massé and eight other Ivorians, including soldiers, died.
Headlines that mess with minds
In Côte d’Ivoire, the apocalypse costs just 200 CFA francs (0.30 euros), the price of a newspaper. Abidjan’s citizens spend time each morning scanning the front page headlines of the business capital’s many daily newspapers. Secret wars, plots, lies, imminent coups, political killings, morbid photos, spectacular revelations, gratuitous allegations and every kind of threat - the climate of extreme violence reigning in Côte d’Ivoire for the past few years has pride of place on the front page of the main newspapers. And breaches of the most basic journalist rules and ethics are also daily fare in the Ivorian print media.
In this universe of excess and paranoia, a few newspapers make an effort to produce dispassionate and relatively balanced news reports. But on the whole the daily papers are political mouthpieces that clash with each other, the one denouncing and disparaging the other. And relations between Ivorian journalists and politicians are either deeply respectful or openly hostile, both in Abidjan and the rest of the country.
Danielle Tagro Sylvie and Thierry Gouégnon of the Courrier d’Abidjan were manhandled by the technical education minister during a student demonstration inside the ministry on 16 January. Georges Gobet, a photo-journalist with the Abidjan bureau of Agence France-Presse, was beaten by police at the start of the trial of Jean Hélène’s murderer on 20 January. Ibrahim Diarra and Charles Sanga of the opposition daily Le Patriote and Franck Konaté of the daily 24 Heures were physically attacked by members of the presidential guard during an official ceremony at Yamoussoukro on 31 January. Polycarpe Ilboudo, a photographer with the independent daily Le Jour Plus, was detained and interrogated by gendarmes in Abidjan on 21 February.
Reporter Al Séni and photographers Messmer Agbola and Kady Sidibé of Le Patriote were detained on 25 March in Abidjan during demonstrations in support of the Linas-Marcoussis accords that degenerated into serious clashes between police, the pro-government "Young Patriots" and opposition supporters which, according to the UN, resulted in more than 100 deaths. The same day Willy Aka, a photographer with the independent daily L’Intelligent d’Abidjan, was beaten by police and his equipment was destroyed. RFI’s broadcasts were suspended for 24 hours at the start of May, a day after it reported the findings of a UN investigation in the violence of 25-27 March before they were officially release. The UN commission had accused the "highest government authorities" of staging a "planned operation."
It was just as difficult for Ivorian journalists to work in the north, in the area controlled by the former rebels of the New Forces (FN). Local FN chiefs often behaved like petty despots and Abidjan correspondents who did not offer them allegiance had at the very least to ensure their good will. Several cases of intimidation and ill-treatment were reported in the course of the year. Armed FN members threatened Jonas Ouattara Nagolourgo, a photographer with the daily Notre Voie (the mouthpiece of the presidential party), in the north of the country on 3 January, seizing and destroying his photos.
Emmanuel Konan, a correspondent for the government daily Fraternité Matin in the western town of Daloa, was detained by a local warlord on 11 February and his material was confiscated. Youssouf Sylla and Diallo Mohamed, Fraternité Matin correspondents in the central city of Bouaké, had to flee under escort a few days later following threats from local chiefs. Several other local correspondents told Reporters Without Borders they had been summoned to the FN general secretariat in Bouaké where they were lectured or threatened. Amadou Dagnogo, the Bouaké correspondent of the independent daily L’Inter, even went into hiding somewhere in the north of the country for a month for still unclear reasons.
Edipresse, a company that has a monopoly of daily newspaper distribution in Côte d’Ivoire, does not distribute outside the "zone of confidence" established by the UN. Most of the Abidjan dailies are on sale in Bouaké, the rebel "capital," but that is only thanks to the efforts of an individual bookseller who fetches them everyday from Yamoussoukro. Only pro-opposition newspapers are distributed in the other towns in the area controlled by the former rebels, such as Man in the west and Korhogo in the north. Traders who go into the government area to get supplies say the pro-government newspapers do not sell in their own areas. The rebel television station, TV Notre Patrie, offers partisan news reports and serves as a political platform for the main leaders of the September 2002 uprising.
Propaganda, disinformation and incitement to riot
Some news media went back to playing a dangerous game by becoming foot soldiers in the service of one of the warring parties. From September until the 4 November, when the Ivorian armed forces launched military operations against the north, four daily newspapers - Notre Voie, Les Echos du Matin, Le Courrier d’Abidjan and Le Temps - gradually prepared the public for a violent confrontation. These newspapers’ targets were not only the "terrorists" in Bouaké, that is to say, the former rebels controlling the north of the country, but also "Chirac’s mercenaries," meaning the French peacekeepers. They systematically described opposition leaders such as Alassane Ouattara and Henri Konan Bédié as "outlaws" with "hands still dripping with the fresh blood of Ivorians." France was alleged to be pulling the strings of the rebellion and the "sabotaging" of Côte d’Ivoire and it was predicted that mobilisation by "patriots" would soon expose its deception.
Beginning in October, street vendors of newspapers and news stands in Abidjan were on several occasions the targets of groups of militia loyal to President Gbagbo. Groups of young Ivorians roamed the streets of Abidjan seizing and destroying copies of opposition newspapers on 26 and 27 October in particular, a few days after a movement linked to the "Young Patriots" that claimed to defend "constitutional legality" called on its activists to take these newspapers out of circulation. Two vendors were injured in these raids.
The offensive by the Ivorian armed forces against the former rebel positions in the north on 4 November was accompanied by an exceptional crackdown on free expression in Côte d’Ivoire. Part of the press was silenced after extremist militiamen ransacked the offices of Le Patriote (an opposition daily that backs Alassane Ouattara’s party, the RDR), 24 Heures (an independent daily) and Le Nouveau Réveil (which supports the former ruling single party led by Henri Konan Bédié).
The night before saw the sabotaging of the FM transmitters that relay the programming of Radio France Internationale (RFI), the BBC World Service and Africa N°1, and the removal by force of the director-general of RadioTélévision Ivoirienne (RTI), Kébé Yacouba, and his replacement by a government supporter, Jean-Paul Dahily. Forming a "crisis committee," Dahily ordered a purge of the most "suspect" elements, reassigned duties and overhauled programming. Journalists who objected were sidelined and several trade union leaders were threatened.
With a near monopoly of news and information now established, the state-owned media thereafter acted as propagandists in the exclusive service of the ruling party and pro-government militia, calling for an uprising against the French and disseminating alarmist and extreme reports. With few exceptions, the news broadcast by RTI and Radio Côte d’Ivoire (RCI) during the November riots strayed from journalism into propaganda. With the help of nationalistic songs, phone-in contributions and interviews, presenters stoked the "patriotism" of their listeners. While the streets of Abidjan were prey to looting and violence, the state media relayed disinformation and rumour encouraging the street violence. Live TV broadcasts organised the uprising and egged on the rioters. Once again "hate media" were making themselves heard in Africa.
In a development without precedent in the history of international law, the UN security council on 15 November unanimously adopted resolution 1572 "demanding" that the Ivorian authorities stop "all radio and television broadcasting inciting hatred, intolerance and violence" within a month. The day before, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan had publicly condemned the Ivorian media, following the lead of several French ministers and international organisations.
Journalists with daily newspapers that had stop publishing were meanwhile forced to live in semi-clandestinity before finally being able to bring out a joint free issue that was distributed in an unorthodox manner after calm returned on 22 November. Le Patriote, Le Jour, 24 Heures, Ivoire Matin, Le Libéral Nouveau, Le Nouveau Réveil and Le Front brought out another joint issue on 26 November, no longer free but again distributed in a non-standard fashion. The independent and opposition newspapers were not able to reappear in a normal manner until 1 December after they won a suit against the distributing company Edipresse, which had suspended distribution under pressure from street violence, their vendors and the authorities. Although vendors had to face further sporadic violence from a few extremists who continued to tear up opposition newspapers, the situation thereafter stayed relatively calm until the end of the year.
In short, hate and violence reign in Côte d’Ivoire. Even within the news media.
1 journalist was killed
3 were injured
1 was in prison
1 was convicted by a court
7 were arrested
21 were physically attacked
13 were threatened
3 were unfairly dismissed
7 media were censored
and 2 newspaper issues were seized.
"Journalists behave like wolves towards each other"
Abdoulaye Sangaré is the managing editor of 24 Heures, one of Abidjan’s independent dailies. The editorial offices of his newspaper were wrecked by "Young Patriots" on 4 November, in a prelude to the rioting that shook Abidjan for nearly a week.
All of the editorial staff was at the newspaper on the afternoon of 4 November, 35 people altogether. We were preparing the Friday issue. It was about 4 p.m., a busy time for daily newspapers, when I received a call from the editor of Le Patriote, an opposition newspaper, who told me "Young Patriots" were in the process of ransacking and setting fire to their newspaper. The offices of our newspapers are about 3 or 4 km apart. We had just enough time to grab a few things and flee. We tried to save as much as possible, but we did not manage to take very much in the panic, just a few laptops, in fact. I only managed to take my desktop’s CPU. I wanted to take everything, files and archives, but we did not have time and we had to calm people down.
Before abandoning the place, our editor, Joachim Beugré, called the FANCI (the Côte d’Ivoire national armed forces) and the police. The army said they would send some people over. We are still waiting for them. Then we left the building. Most of the staff members went home. We, the executives, drove to a spot about 1 km away. I could see everything from there, because the newspaper is located on Valéry Giscard d’Estaing Boulevard, Abidjan’s main thoroughfare, which is about 100 metres wide and 2 km long. I saw about 100 "Young Patriots" climb over the gates and wreck and burn everything. We then drove past the building at top speed, in the traffic, in the middle of other, ordinary vehicles. Firemen were already busy trying to put out the fire at Le Patriote. We called the fire brigade at Yopougon, a nearby municipality. When they arrived an hour and a half later, everything had already been burned and there was nothing left. Three policemen later came to do a report.
A deep division appeared within the Côte d’Ivoire press over the following days. We were only able to begin republishing on 2 December. We did not get any solidarity from our fellow-journalists who write for the state. And that hurt us. We are all journalists. Our job is not to practice politics but to express ourselves. But journalists have been behaving like wolves towards each other since 2002, especially since Jean Hélène’s murder and Guy-André Kieffer’s disappearance. Imagine, one of the members of the executive council of the National Union of Journalists of Côte d’Ivoire (UNJCI) belongs to the committee formed to support Jean Hélène’s murderer! There is a deep split through the middle of the press that is far from being healed. We experienced a great deal of solidarity from Reporters Without Borders, the international press and others. Today we are trying to find ways to guarantee our safety. We have asked the UN to take measures to protect us if similar dangers resurface. Our future must be to express ourselves for as long as this is not banned by the law.