The situation for press freedom got much worse in the days following the attempted coup d’etat of 19 September 2002. With a few exceptions, the local news media abandoned news reporting for commentary and one-sided editorials. The FM relays of the international radio stations were shut down on 21 September and remained so. As a result, Ivorian public opinion was badly informed and buffeted by rumours and false reports.
For years a number of privately-owned newspapers have never stopped running offensive, libellous articles, targeted above all at the foreign press, France and Alassane Dramane Ouattara, leader of the opposition Rally of the Republicans (RDR). Le National is the most virulent of these newspapers. The volume and tone of its verbal attacks and appeals for violence put it in the category of "hate media." But other newspapers such as L’il du Peuple and the pro-government daily Notre Voie do not lag far behind, adding oil to the flames.
Some journalists recognised their responsibility in the crisis. "We Ivorian journalists paved the way for war," said Diégou Bailly, former publisher of Le Jour and now president of the National Council for Broadcast Communication (CNCA). "With our words of hate and our diatribes, we prepared the minds of Ivorians for war."
The foreign news media have had their shortcomings. "We haven’t exactly shone in this story," one foreign correspondent acknowledged a few days after the coup attempt. But they were the target of constant virulent attacks from the authorities and some of local press, both private and state-owned. These attacks, in which correspondents were sometimes named, created a climate of insecurity culminating in some cases in physical attacks. Several foreign journalists who have covered other wars in Africa said they had never experienced anything like Côte d’Ivoire.
Although repeatedly asked by Reporters Without Borders, the authorities took no concrete stops to ensure the safety of journalists. Communications minister Séry Bailly contented himself with repeating that, "the best way for journalists to ensure their safety is to handle the news correctly." The self-censorship encouraged by that remark has become standard practice in the Ivorian news media.
In an interview for national television in mid-November, the communications minister said a unit had been set up "to see what journalists write, in order to give the necessary, helpful guidance." Anyone trying to interview the Patriotic Movement of Côte d’Ivoire (MPCI), the political wing of the armed rebels, risked being punished under the law, he said. "It is important for journalists to understand this ... if we are obliged to impose sanctions, it will be done, and the competent authorities will do their duty."
From the outset, the state-owned media have played a pernicious role in the crisis. The government of the day’s propaganda tools, they have for the most part helped to misinform and have contributed nothing to restoring peace. By giving just one side of events and providing bellicose commentary, they have done a public disservice. A journalist with the state-owned Radio-Télévision Ivoirienne (RTI) said on the air on 6 October that the "key to victory" was the expulsion of everyone from Burkina Faso. Several journalists said they lost their jobs with the state-owned media after the coup attempt because of their geographical origin or their political sympathies.
The international community got involved at the end of 2002. United Nations high commissioner for human rights Sergio Vieira de Mello said in December that those responsible for violations in Côte d’Ivoire risked being tried before the International Criminal Court (ICC). Violations of the rights of journalists also came under the jurisdiction of the ICC, he said
Two journalists imprisoned
Agents with the Directorate of Territorial Surveillance (DST) detained Gaël Mocaer, a French film director working for Radio France Outremer (RFO), at his hotel on 17 October 2002 and took him to the intelligence agency’s headquarters in Abidjan. No official explanation was given for his arrest and no one was allowed to see him. Mocaer had come to make a documentary about the situation in Côte d’Ivoire. He was released on 23 October and immediately returned to France.
Dembélé Bazoumana, a reporter with the daily Tassouman was detained by more than a dozen armed men on 29 October, taken to the gendarmerie and accused of interviewing former military personnel who had joined the rebels. He was beaten with an iron bar and shot twice, in the left buttock and left calf. The next day he was moved to the investigations sections of the gendarmerie, where he spent six days before being freed on 5 November.
A journalist arrested
BBC correspondent Kate Davenport was briefly detained on 12 October 2002 while covering the demolition of ramshackle housing in Abidjan. The police said it was to protect her from an "angry crowd." She was released after being held for four hours at a police post.
Journalists physically attacked
On 29 January 2002, two Ivorian radio journalists, Roger Bion and Magui Pascal, were abducted by police while covering a police strike and were briefly held in the boot of a car. Police also threatened to kill Pierre Ignace Tressia, the deputy news director of Radio Côte d’Ivoire, who had presented a programme about police extortion.
Two days later, police hit Angan Yao Simplice, a trainee journalist with the daily La Tribune d’Abidjan, when he was at the interior ministry to cover a meeting of police officers on strike. They took his tape recorder and prevented him from entering the meeting room. They also emptied his bag and took his money. A superintendent intervened and returned his tape recorder. Policemen also manhandled Abou Traoré, a journalist with the daily Le Jour, and detained him for three hours.
On 25 September, Reuters cameraman Alain Amontchi was attacked outside the French embassy in Abidjan by protesters who broke his camera because they did not want foreign journalists at their demonstration. They were part of group of some 3,000 youths calling themselves "patriots" who had gone to the embassy to demand that France hand over opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, who had taken refuge inside. A Spanish tourist was manhandled the same day in the centre of Abidjan by youths who mistook him for a foreign journalist. He was rescued by plain-clothes police.
Newspapers close to the opposition RDR were threatened on 21 September at a meeting organised by the youth wing of the ruling JFPI, the Pan-African Congress of Young Patriots (COJEP) and the Côte d’Ivoire Student and School Federation (FESCI). Leaders of these organisations said that, if these newspapers reappeared, they would first break up the kiosks selling them, then attack the journalists and finally set fire to the premises of Le Patriote. Two days later, members of a youth movement linked to President Laurent Gbagbo attacked reporter Mamady Keita of Le Patriote, accusing him of being a spy. He was injured in the head and above an eye.
César Etou, managing editor of the daily Notre Voie, was attacked in Abidjan on the evening of 14 October. He was at the wheel of his car when three men smashed the windows and tried to seize him. He managed to escape on foot. He said his assailants were after him, not his car, and were politically motivated. "I have often spoken on the radio recently about the current crisis and I get threatening calls all the time," he told Reporters Without Borders.
Unidentified men in fatigues on 10 December detained Ouattara Gaoussou, a trainee journalist with the daily Le Patriote, took him to an isolated location and beat him, the newspaper said.
Other journalists, including reporters with the TV network France 2 and the TV news agency CAPA, were threatened by soldiers or pro-government demonstrators in the days following the coup attempt. In some cases, equipment was damaged or confiscated.
Pressure and obstruction
Four journalists with the state broadcaster RTI were questioned by gendarmes in early July 2002, a few days after RTI televised a press conference by opposition leader Alassane Ouattara’s lawyers. Ouattara had just obtained a certificate of Ivorian nationality - a significant development as he was excluded from the 2000 presidential election on the grounds that he had foreign parents.
Uniformed police ransacked the Abidjan offices of the Mayama press group on 9 September, discharging tear gas and slighting injuring four persons. Mayama publishes Le Patriote and Tassouman, daily newspapers sympathetic to the opposition RDR. The police were irate about an article in Tassouman referring to the robbery of the interior minister’s car and calling it a "humiliation" for the police. The article was erroneous and the newspaper had been about to publish a correction reporting that it was the health minister’s car that was robbed.
Certain employees of both the radio and TV divisions of the state-owned RTI were not allowed back to work after the 19 September coup attempt. Security agents outside RTI’s two buildings had a list of the persons allowed to enter. Those not on the list could not go back to work. Several journalists affected attributed the ban to the fact that the came from the north of the country or were thought to support the opposition RDR. The RTI management denied this, and said staff were cut for "security reasons."
No newspaper sympathetic to the RDR appeared between 20 September and 9 October, and the journalists who work for these newspapers stayed at home. Le Patriote resumed publishing on 10 October as a result of an agreement between its journalists and OLPED, a local NGO that monitors press freedom and press ethics. But its journalists wrote from home or places kept secret, and the newspaper no longer circulated in the Gagnoa region, where President Gbagbo was born, as government supporters threatened local distributors. In early October, Le Patriote’s management asked the communications minister to provide protection for its journalists and editorial staff, but the minister replied that the crisis made it impossible to station a policeman at each newspaper.
The FM signals of Radio France Internationale (RFI) and the BBC could no longer be received after 22 September in Ivory Coast. The FM signal of Africa N°1 went down the next day. The authorities denied giving orders to shut down the local relay transmitters. But a caretaker at the transmitters said gendarmes came in broad daylight and removed the audio cards, thereby cutting the signals.
The transmitters of the state broadcaster RTI at Abobo (Abidjan) were attacked and set on fire three times in late September and early October. Guards were injured and three vehicles were stolen. The communications minister went there to reassure staff and see how security could be reinforced. Floodlights were subsequently installed in and around the site.
The Abidjan relay transmitter of the French-language television network TV5 was sabotaged on the night of 4 October. Agence France-Presse reported that its cooling system was destroyed by a fire that was started deliberately. Most of the population in the Abidjan region had been able to receive its signal.
A group of about 50 individuals in civilian dress, some armed, broke through the gate of the Mayama press group at around 9:30 a.m. on 16 October and ransacked the editorial offices, smashing equipment including the control post of the printing press.
Just after 8:00 p.m. the next day, a score of men clad in fatigues and armed with automatic rifles arrived in four-wheel drive vehicles at the premises of Radio Nostalgie in Abidjan. After attacking the security guard at the entrance and firing on surveillance cameras, they went in and ransacked the studio and offices, wrecking all the equipment. At least one shot was fired at a screen in the recording studio. Staff valued the damage at more than 200 million CFA francs (about 305,000 euros). The radio station had stopped reporting the news since the start of the crisis to avoid being accused of bias. The head of the station, Hamed Bakayoko, is one of main shareholders in the Mayama press group and is close to Ouattara, the opposition leader.
Situation in rebel-held areas
Journalists are little better off in the areas controlled by the rebel forces. While foreign journalists may be less at risk, this is not the case for the rare Ivorian reporters. The rebels have understood the importance of news and, since 21 October 2002, have equipped themselves with their own television channel by appropriating RTI’s facilities. Télé-Mutins (Mutineer TV), renamed Télé-Notre Patrie (Our Homeland TV) a few weeks later, just carries the official rebel propaganda. All day long it transmits the meetings and speeches of the leaders of the MPCI, the political wing of the rebels. RTI’s own news programmes are no longer broadcast in the Bouaké region.
The rebels launched Liberté, a "militant newspaper," in mid-November. According to its editor Ladji Abou Sanogo, it is "clearly committed to supporting the mutineers." In its first issue, priced at 150 CGA francs (0.23 euros), all the articles backed the rebels.
Christophe Koffi, the correspondent of Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Burkina Faso, went to northern Côte d’Ivoire on 20 September and, in Korhogo, met one of the rebel chiefs who gave him an interview. The same rebel chief contacted him two days later and asked him to come to their camp to get information. When he arrived, the rebel leader immediately had him arrested without any explanation. Koffi was held in an empty dormitory for five days, guarded by an armed soldier. Then one of the camp leaders accused him of giving information to the government. Koffi explained that he worked for an international news agency. A week later, he was spotted by a crew from the French TV channel TF1 which had come to do a report in the camp. The TF1 crew convinced the rebels to let Koffi leave with them and French troops brought him to Abidjan the next day.
The regional director of RTI, Pierre Lidé, was held for several days by the rebels at the end of September, at the start of the fighting.
During the same period, Lazare Kouamé, correspondent of the Agence Ivoirienne de Presse (AIP), was held for 24 hours at Bouaké, when he went to the city’s hospital to get casualty figures after the clashes with the armed forces.
The military banned journalists from entering the city of Man on 3 December, the day after it was retaken by government forces. Only reporters with the state-owned news media were allowed in. "You dirty everything so much we have to clean up before we let you in," one military officer told foreign reporters.