Reporters Without Borders is outraged at the way journalists were treated when demonstrators claiming to support President Laurent Gbagbo seized control of the streets of Abidjan from 16 to 19 January. In a grim week for press freedom, at least four journalists were physically attacked, many were threatened with death or rape, many others were subjected to extortion, a radio station was ransacked and the state TV broadcaster, RadioTélévision Ivoirienne (RTI), was taken over.
“No lesson was learned from RTI’s takeover by the Young Patriots in November 2004,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The international community offered impunity to the press freedom predators and they repeated their offence. We therefore urge the United Nations, which condemned these events in firm and pertinent terms in New York, to quickly establish a serious programme for implementing its position in Côte d’Ivoire.”
16-17 January - 48 hour siege
The barricades began being thrown up at dawn on 16 January. In response to calls from several pro-Gbagbo organisations, young demonstrators built and manned checkpoints, stopping and searching cars and extorting money from drivers. Groups gathered outside the French embassy, the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), and the barracks of the French 43rd Marine Infantry Battalion, which is part of a French peacekeeping presence known as the Licorne Force. The goal was to force all the UN-mandated foreign troops to leave Côte d’Ivoire after the International Working Group - which was set up by the African Union, with UN support, to monitor the transition - recommended not extending the period of the Ivorian parliament, which expired on 16 December.
Several hundred pro-Gbagbo Young Patriots began gathering outside RTI headquarters in the district of Cocody at midday. A group led by Serge Koffi, the head of the Student and School Federation (FESCI), by Ferdinand “Watchard Kédjébo” Kouadio, the head of the National Committee for the Liberation of Bouaké (CNLB), and by Thierry Legré, one of the leaders of the Alliance of Young Patriots, demanded the right to make a statement live on the air. RTI deputy director-general Aka Sayé Lazare refused, but offered to broadcast a pre-recorded statement. Negotiations began under the authority of the armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Philippe Mangou, and the head of the security operations command centre (CECOS), Col. Georges Guiai Bi Poin.
Meanwhile, after a crisis meeting with President Gbagbo and Prime Minster Charles Konan Banny at the president’s home in Cocody, interior minister Joseph Dja Blé and defence minister René Aphing Kouassi went to RTI headquarters to record a message calling for calm. They were joined by deputy communication minister Martine Coffi Studer. The three ministers installed themselves in the director-general’s office.
Learning of the three ministers’ presence and faced by the continuing refusal of RTI management to bow to their demands, the leaders of the demonstrators threatened to call on the Young Patriots massed in the courtyard. Several demonstrators forced their way onto the set in Studio A while David Mobio was presenting the 1 p.m. news programme. They ejected Mobio from his seat and demanded to make a statement, but the broadcast was immediately suspended. It resumed only after the Young Patriots had left the studio. Mobio ended the programme saying: “May God bring peace to this country.”
Emboldened by the army chief’s apparent personal support and by the passivity of his soldiers, the Young Patriots in RTI’s courtyard insulted and threatened the station’s journalists and other employees, called them “rebels with cushy jobs.” A well-known woman journalist who has often been threatened by the pro-Gbagbo youth in the past was actively sought by some of the demonstrators, who said they were going to “rape her.” She was absent that day.
The demonstrators stayed in the courtyard until the 8 p.m. news programme, when their recorded message was broadcast. They then began organising a siege of the building, installing a makeshift camp outside the perimeter wall.
18 January - RTI taken by storm
There was a dramatic development at 4 a.m. on 18 January. The soldiers guarding the RTI building opened the gates. The Young Patriots rushed through and forced their way into the studios where they threatened the technicians present and got them to broadcast a message by Koffi, urging all young people to take to the streets to demand the departure of foreign troops and “our country’s complete liberation.” Koffi also claimed that he had “taken” the TV station.
After the 1 p.m. news programme, the leaders of groups claiming to support Gbagbo were back on the air issuing calls for “peaceful” demonstration outside the “symbols of the occupation,” namely the French 43rd Marine Infantry Battalion, the French embassy, RTI and the Hotel Sébroko (UNOCI headquarters). The messages delivered on camera were almost identical. They called on people to “take to the streets” to “force UNOCI and Licorne to leave.” Those who spoke one after another were Damanan Pickass, the former head of the youth wing of the ruling Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), Eugène Djué, the head of the Union of Patriots for the Total Liberation of Côte d’Ivoire (UPLTCI), Geneviève Bro Grébé, head of the Women Patriots, and Alfred M’Bra N’Goran, the secretary-general of the Collective of Political Parties Supporting the President.
In Daloa, a town in the centre of the country, the community radio station Radio Tchrato-Daloa was stormed by the local Young Patriots after the management refused to broadcast an appeal for an attack on the local UN base. The demonstrators ransacked the station and wrecked equipment.
Abidjan journalists who do not belong to the pro-Gbagbo camp made themselves scarce. The places normally frequented by the opposition press were deserted. Many members of the RTI management stopped going to work. Reporters Without Borders issued a release at the end of the day expressing its outrage that “calls for insurrection have again been broadcast by the state-owned RadioTélévision Ivoirienne (RTI) under threat from demonstrators claiming to be the supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo.” The release recommended that “the installations of RTI and RCI should be made secure or, failing that, they should be taken off the air.”
The 8 p.m. news programme screened long sequences of calls for popular “mobilisation” accompanied by favourable comments.
19 January - urban terror
The pro-Gbagbo press was exultant. A column by Guillaume T. Gbato in the privately-owned, pro-FPI daily Notre Voie proclaimed: “Honour and glory to the Ivorian TV journalists who have chosen the camp of the fatherland and honour. Glory to these valiant sons of Côte d’Ivoire who have shown Ivorians and the world that despite the love of money, sons of this country are ready for fight for the dignity of the motherland.” The column attacked RTI director-general Kébé Yacouba, calling him a “pro-rebel activist,” an “incompetent unworthy of managing such an important public service media as the national television station.” It also claimed that Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny’s nickname at the “university of Abidjan” was “bandit.”
Journalists were unceremoniously interrogated by demonstrators at the barricades, who said they were looking for reporters working for Le Patriote, a privately-owned daily that supports former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara’s party, the Rally of Republicans (RDR), or other newspapers that support the opposition.
On hearing of a murder on a street in the Abobo district of Abidjan, a team of journalists working for the Olympe group, which owns the daily newspapers L’Inter and Soir Info, was dispatched to a location near the 15th arrondissement police station. They were stopped at the “bachelor crossroads” roadblock by a group of Young Patriots armed with machetes, swords, knives and clubs, who were led by a man called Zokou. The Young Patriots threatened to kill Soir Info reporter Konan N’Bra, photographer Abdoul Karim Koné and their driver, called Thomas, beating them and taking their money and their equipment. At the same time, the demonstrators took care to spare L’Inter woman reporter Eugénie Agoh. N’Bra said police and CECOS soldiers who were nearby opened fire in an attempt to intimidate the demonstrators but then retreated. The journalists finally managed to get away from their assailants after two hours.
At the end of the morning, RTI repeatedly transmitted a text message across the bottom of the screen saying: “Ivorian patriots, we invite you to come and defend your television station at Cocody, because it is your television.”
20 January - a provisional denouement
While negotiations got under way in Abidjan with the aim of restoring order peacefully, the UN
Security Council met in New York. It issued a statement stressing that “the occupation of the RTI facilities constitutes an attack against freedom and neutrality of information, as well as a breach of the principles of the process of national reconciliation, of previous resolutions of the Security Council and of the peace agreements.” The statement added that the Security Council, “demands that effective control by the board and the director-general over RTI shall be re-established immediately.”
At the end of the day, Young Patriots leader Charles Blé Goudé called on his followers to end the demonstrations. In the evening, deputy communication minister Martine Coffi Studer went to RTI to broadcast a message from the prime minister which had been recorded at his home in Cocody-Deux Plateaux and which called on Ivorians “to go back to work.” She was accompanied by Cissé Bakary Bacongo, an assistant to the RTI director-general, and Koné Lanciné, the station’s news director.
Ben Zahui, an RTI journalist who said he was “president” of the station’s “crisis committee,” demanded to view the video-cassette before it was broadcast. The minister refused and the situation became tense. According to the minister’s account, confirmed by several witnesses, Zahui hit her hard and shook her. “He hit my arm as I was trying to protect my face,” she told Agence France-Presse (AFP). “He clearly intended to slap me and he jostled me.” In an interview for L’Inter on 21 January, Zahui acknowledged there was “a very sharp exchange” but he denied hitting her. “A normal man cannot slap a government minister, especially if she is a woman,” he said. The RTI management has begun disciplinary proceedings against Zahui. Interviewed the same day by Notre Voie, Zahui said of RTI: “From now on, things are clear. There are those who support the rebellion and those who defend the republic.” He added that, “if Kébé Yacouba has to come back to RTI,” the government should establish “a collegial leadership.”
RTI resumed normal programming at the end of the day on 20 January. The siege by the Young Patriots was lifted and Yacouba’s team was able to go back to work. Nonetheless, the ruling FPI issued a “warning” to the RTI management, advising it not to take “any reprisals against employees who remained at their post” especially Zahui, the “coordinator of the crisis team.”