Two weeks after the Ivorian authorities suspended Radio France Internationale’s local FM broadcasts over its handling of local news, Reporters Without Borders today condemned an "unacceptable deterioration" in the safety of journalists in Abidjan as a result of a "reign of terror" imposed by a pro-government militia known as the Young Patriots.
The press freedom organisation urged the government to adopt a series of "energetic measures" so that journalists can work without fearing punitive raids by this militia in the run-up to presidential elections scheduled for October.
In the past week, members of the Young Patriots carried out a heavy-handed raid on the headquarters of the public TV and radio broadcaster to force it to broadcast an address by their leader, spent a day roaming the Abidjan streets using violence and vandalism to censure the print media, and ambushed and beat up an opposition newspaper journalist.
"The militia led by Charles Blé Goudé has used brutality, threats and vandalism to impose its law in Abidjan all week," Reporters Without Borders said. "If the authorities say they want an end to civil strife, why are they not moving to prevent Côte d’Ivoire’s business capital falling into the grip of this group that claims to have the president’s support."
Rather than adopting disproportionate sanctions against the international news media, the authorities should take stock of the current scandalous situation, in which gangs are carrying out retaliatory raids with complete impunity, the organisation said.
Reporters Without Borders proposed three measures which the Ivorian authorities should adopt if they want to prove their good faith.
"Firstly, after two weeks of enforced silence, it is time to lift the ban on FM broadcasts by Radio France Internationale (RFI) especially as the events of the past week have proved that it is in no way responsible for the climate of violence, and that singling it out was unfair.
"Secondly, the tough sanctions required by the law must be taken against those responsible for the threats and violence against journalists working in Abidjan.
"Thirdly," Reporters Without Borders added, "after the explosions of violence of 4 November 2004 and 24 July 2005 and in view of the coming presidential elections, we reiterate our belief that the premises of the state-owned news media should be protected by a joint force formed by the Ivorian army, the UN, and France’s ’Licorne’ peace-keeping force, to prevent any attack or illegitimate takeover of the public information service."
Around 100 members of the Young Patriots forced their way into the headquarters of RadioTélévision Ivoirienne (RTI) and Radio Côte d’Ivoire (RCI) in the Abidjan district of Cocody on the afternoon of 24 July and, according to a statement by RTI director-general Kébé Yacouba, they "used threats to demand the broadcast of their leader’s entire speech" in which, for more than 20 minutes, he urged his followers to prevent any opposition demonstration in the government-controlled region "until further notice."
Groups of Young Patriots roamed though several Abidjan neighbourhoods and Bassam the next day destroying any copies they found of the opposition newspapers Le Patriote (which supports the RDR, the party led by former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara) and Le Nouveau Réveil (which supports former President Henri Konan Bédié’s PDCI).
A group of Young Patriots also went to the headquarters of the newspaper distribution company EdiPresse and used threats to prevent any more newspapers going out. In the evening, Young Patriots took up position outside the independent daily Dernière Heure, preventing its staff from producing the next day’s issue.
On 26 July, Young Patriots attacked PDCI activists outside their party headquarters, injuring eight. Several journalists were threatened and one of them, José Stéphane Boudou of the independent daily Le Jour Plus, was beaten up after identifying himself.
The re-transmission of RFI’s broadcasts on the FM wave-band in Côte d’Ivoire were suspended at midnight on 15 July until further notice on the orders of the National Council for Radio and TV Broadcasting (CNCA), which accused the station of unprofessional and biased coverage of Ivorian development. The CNCA demanded that RFI pay a fine of 9 million CFA francs (14,000 euros) and, when allowed back on the air, broadcast a retraction at least five times denying the disputed existence of a UN report blaming the government for recent deadly violence.
A civilian militia claiming to have President Laurent Gbagbo’s backing, the Young Patriots were this year added to the Reporters Without Borders list of "press freedom predators." The group was one of the spearheads of a presidential offensive last October and November, firstly attacking newspaper vendors, then ransacking the headquarters of a series of independent or opposition newspapers - Le Patriote, 24 Heures, Le Front, Le Nouveau Réveil, Le Jour Plus and Le Libéral.
On the eve of the raids on the newspapers, the local FM broadcasts of RFI, the BBC and Africa N°1 were silenced by a commando attack on their joint transmission installations. A takeover of the state media also emerged as a key element in Gbagbo’s abortive attempt to recover control of the entire country when hundreds of Young Patriots took up position outside the headquarters of RTI and RCI in the early hours of 4 November, allowing loyalists from the president’s party, the FPI, to seize control.
Reporters Without Borders issued a report about Côte d’Ivoire in May, entitled "Time to disarm minds, pens and microphones," in which it called for a series of urgent measures "as an alternative to ineffective outrage and letting the media criminals go unpunished." For the broadcast sector, the report stressed the urgent need to secure the various sites and transmitters of RTI and RCI by deploying joint force formed by Ivorian army personnel, UN peacekeepers and members of the French Licorne contingent.
"After the wave of political violence that began on 4 November, not to speak of the way Gen. Robert Gueï declared himself winner in the October 2000 presidential election, it is inconceivable that the international community, in the run-up to a key election, does not secure what would clearly be a target in any attempt to derail the process," the report said.
Reporters Without Borders also recommended in its report that national broadcast installations throughout the country should be repaired and put back to work, pointing out that the public information service has not covered the entire country since partition in September 2002 and that the state broadcaster’s frequencies are being used by the former rebel New Forces in the north of the country for their own propaganda broadcasts.