After a week-long fact-finding mission, Reporters Without Borders appealed to the UN Security Council on 25 October to ask the International Criminal Court (ICC) to consider the grave press freedom situation in the country. It demanded an immediate international investigation of the abuses committed by both government and rebel forces in the current conflict.
It said the threats and attacks on journalists and destruction of their property since the troubles began on 19 September were serious violations of humanitarian law that could be tried and punished by the ICC even though Côte d’Ivoire had not yet ratified the ICC statute.
Reporters Without Borders also urged the Ivorian authorities to give protection to media requesting it and to restore the FM reception facilities for foreign radio stations RFI, the BBC and Africa No. 1, which Ivorians have not been able to hear for more than a month now.
It asked the Ivorian communications ministry to see that state radio and TV employees removed because of their ethic origin or political opinions were allowed to return to their jobs at once.
The events of 19 September plunged Côte d’Ivoire into the grimmest period of its history. An attempted coup d’état turned into a wholesale uprising by rebels who now control part of the country. The media have been attacked by both the armed forces and police and by the rebels. No media currently feels safe.
The foreign press under broad attack
Ivorian officials early on accused foreign journalists of being in league with the rebels and their intention of "destabilising" the country. The foreign media can be criticised but nothing justifies the virulent attacks on it by the authorities and sections of both the privately-owned and government media. Sometimes named people are targeted and this creates an climate of lawlessness which on occasion leads to physical attacks.
Nearly all foreign journalists the fact-finding mission met said these repeated threats had seriously affected their freedom of movement. Several who had covered other conflicts in Africa said the situation was unprecedented. A French freelance radio producer working for the Radio France Outre-Mer (RFO) was held for six days without explanation by Ivorian security officials.
Local media threatened
In the course of a month, two media offices have been ransacked, several journalists physically attacked and countless anonymous threats received by staff. Despite requests, the authorities have not taken effective measures to guarantee the safety of journalists. Communications minister Séry Bailly has simply said that "the safest thing for journalists is to report the news in a proper manner." This remark has encouraged self-censorship, which has now become routine in the local media.
"We Ivorian journalists have set the scene for this war," the former editor of a local daily said recently. "We must take responsibility for that. Our diatribes and hate-filled language have filled Ivorian heads with the idea of war."
The foreign press, France and opposition figure Alassane Dramane Ouattara are the targets of some pro-government papers. Le National is once again the most vicious, stepping up its attacks, calling for violence and hurling insults. The paper is a true mouthpiece of hatred. Other papers are guilty too. The pro-government daily Notre Voie and L’oeil du Peuple regularly pour oil on the flames.
The attitude of the government media
Several local journalists said the government media were playing an unhealthy role in the crisis. As organs of official propaganda, they are not helping to calm things down and are seriously misinforming the public. By reporting only one side of things and making warmongering comments, their journalists are poisoning the situation even more.
Ethnic and political purges
Immediately after the 19 September attempted coup, several dozen staff of the state-controlled radio and TV were no longer allowed to work. Officially, this was said to be for their own safety, but several laid-off journalists said it was because they allegedly supported the opposition Republican Rally (RDR) party or were born in the north of the country. Two government TV journalists, who asked to remain anonymous, told Reporters Without Borders they had been deliberately pushed out. "All the laid-off staff are northerners or supposed RDR members. Nearly all those remaining are from the Bete tribe."
The rebels control the news too
In the rebel-ruled part of the country, journalists are not much better off. Foreign reporters are less vulnerable than the few Ivorian journalists working in the area. The rebels have well understood the importance of controlling the news and on 21 October they set up their own TV station. It too simply relays propaganda all day, including meetings of the rebel Côte d’Ivoire Patriotic Movement (MPCI) and the speeches of its leaders.