The Cote d’Ivoire, divided in two since September 2002, has a pluralistic press, mechanisms for democratic regulation and no longer legally imprisons journalists. But it is one of Africa’s most dangerous countries for both local and foreign media. The year began with a new outbreak of violence from the “Young Patriots”, placed by Reporters Without Borders on its list of “press freedom predators”.
At dawn on 16 January 2006, barricades began to go up all around Abidjan. Checkpoints were set up by young demonstrators in response to an appeal from the several organisations for the defence of President Laurent Gbagbo. Groups began to mass in front of several strategic sites in the economic capital with the aim of forcing out the UN mandated forces. Several hundred Young Patriots rallied in front of the building housing the state-run media, particularly Radiotélévision ivoirienne (RTI). They used forced to get the staff to broadcast news of their action in the 1pm news bulletin and threatened several journalists, calling them “rebels with cushy jobs", and then withdrew from the building. But overnight on 17-18 January there was a further dramatic development. Soldiers guarding the entrance to the building opened the gates and the Young Patriots who were waiting outside rushed through and forced their way into the studios. They threatened the technicians to get them to broadcast a message from one of their leaders calling for “all young people to take to the streets to demand the departure of impartial forces and to fully liberate the country”. They also claimed to have “taken” the television. From then on, leaders of the various groups claiming to support President Laurent Gbagbo occupied the RTI premises, calling for rallies against the “symbols of occupation”. Local bands of Young Patriots in Daloa, a city in central Cote d’Ivoire, stormed and ransacked the premises of community radio Radio Tchrato-Daloa after the management refused to broadcast a call from the demonstrators to attack the local UN base.
Over the next two days, journalists in Abidjan not belonging to the pro-presidential camp, lay low. The offices of opposition newspapers were deserted, for fear of Young Patriot raids as had happened in November 2004. Demonstrators at the barricades roughly interrogated journalists, saying they were looking for staff from the daily Patriote, linked to the Rally for the Republicans (RDR), the party of former prime minister Alassane Ouattara, or other dailies close to the opposition. A team of journalists from the Olympe group, owner of the dailies L’Inter and Soir Info, were held up at a barricade manned by Young Patriots brandishing swords, knives and clubs. Journalist for Soir Info Konan N’Bra, photographer Abdoul Karim Koné and their driver were threatened with death, beaten up and robbed of their money and reporting equipment.
Negotiations in Abidjan between the Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny and President Laurent Gbagbo led to a return to normality on 20 January.
The presidential camp was not ready to yield however. On 28 November, RTI’s director general, Kébé Yacouba, was sacked by presidential decree and replaced by Pierre Brou Amessan, who read the TV news during the period that the Young Patriots had seized control in January, and the channel’s board of governors was dissolved. Laurent Gbagbo had seen as “seditious” the airing on RTI, on 27 November, of Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny’s statement that it was “urgent to delay implementation” of decrees re-instating officials suspended for their part in the toxic waste scandal in Abidjan. The move confirmed the bringing to heel of the public media, a crucial element in controlling news and information throughout the country.
An unassailable presidency
The year 2006 therefore saw a return to the control of news by force. It was also the third year of uncertainty about the fate of French-Canadian journalist Guy-André Kieffer, who was kidnapped by a commando from a parking lot of an Abidjan supermarket on 16 April 2004, after being lured into an ambush set by Michel Legré, brother-in-law of the president’s wife, Simone Gbagbo. French examining magistrate Patrick Ramaël opened an investigation into Legré on 21 October 2004 for “abduction and a holding a hostage”. He is currently under house arrest in Abidjan, after 18 months in detention. Jean-Tony Oulai, an Ivorian calling himself an army “ex-captain”, and accused by some witnesses of having organised the kidnapping of the journalist, was also put under investigation for “abduction and holding a hostage” in January 2006 in France and put on probation. But the investigation has been hamstrung by the appalling state of relations between France and Cote d’Ivoire, the difficulties of investigating on the spot and the law of silence kept by those involved in the case, all close to the president.