Reporters Without Borders announced today it had officially become part of the investigation into the 21 October murder in Côte d’Ivoire of Radio France Internationale (RFI) journalist Jean Hélène. It also deplored the climate of hatred and tension stoked up by media on both sides in the country’s civil war and said it endangered the lives of local and foreign journalists.
A Reporters Without Borders team - secretary-general Robert Ménard, lawyer Guillaume Prigent and legal expert Laurence Deguitre - visited Abidjan from 26 to 28 November and discussed the murder probe with a range of political figures, along with key issues such as journalists’ safety and the free flow and diversity of news.
President Laurent Gbagbo, who has never explicitly condemned calls for vengeance made by pro-government media, declined to meet the team, which noted during their discussions that the February killing of a reporter for the government Agence ivoirienne de presse (AIP) news agency in the western part of the country had still not been investigated.
The press freedom organisation was granted the status of a civil party in the Hélène investigation on 27 November and was then allowed to look at the case file, which has been sent to government prosecutor Ange Kessi Kouamé for comment, after which examining magistrate Kokobo Blé will decide whether to order the public trial of the accused, Sgt. Théodore Séry Dago, before 15 December by a military court to be headed by a civilian judge. Five other soldiers would be tried for abuses at the same time.
The team welcomed the progress made in the investigation. Ballistic and forensic tests have been done and the crime was reconstituted on 18 November in the presence of French prosecutor Yves Bot and examining magistrate Patrick Ramael, though it was marred by demonstrations by supporters of the accused.
Prosecutor Kouamé told the team that he wanted to see human rights respected and the guilty people punished. He invited Reporters Without Borders and other rights groups to lodge complaints about abuses committed by soldiers.
Examples of local media incitement to hatred since the rebel uprising of September last year have included a 10 October 2002 article in Notre Voie called "Constant disinformation by Western media," accusing the foreign press of "stirring up unrest" in the country for the benefit of "certain interests" well known to Agence France-Presse (AFP) journalist Ouattara Mohamed Junior, Jean Hélène, French TV5 reporter Denise Epoté-Durand and other foreign media.
It said these "modern-day slave-traders and vultures" were "dirty and corrupt people trying to destroy Africa." The paper accused the foreign media of supporting "terrorists" and "trying to blacken the name" of Gbagbo’s government and destabilise the country.
Since Hélène’s murder, such incendiary writings have increased. The opposition press has blamed the killing on the pro-government media, which in turn has denounced political exploitation of the murder.
Le Temps ran an article on 23 October called "Injustice produces violence," which talked of "a systematic and hateful campaign of denigration" and said locally-based foreign journalists had held a "crisis meeting" and decided to blame "hate media" and "pro-government elements" of being indirectly responsible for Hélène’s murder.
"The fanatical ideologists in the small band of foreign journalists in Abidjan are already shamelessly and unscrupulously dancing on the grave of their colleague in a crazy and cynical way that threatens everyone," it said, calling Hélène’s death a "sad little event."
Notre Voie printed an article on 25 October called "Vultures, ravens and hyenas at the journalist’s body" which called on people to "stop being emotional and to remain dignified despite the unfortunate accidental death of a journalist they say was very good but who always turned up in countries where rebels were trying to take over."
It said in a 27 October article headed "The death of Jean Hélène, another false alibi" that the case was "just a foul and odious pretence" and that some suspected Hélène was "more than just a journalist."
Prime minister Seydou Diarra, who told the Reporters Without Borders team he wanted to calm the country down, admitted the media was "aggravating political tensions" and said political leaders should call on their media supporters to be behave more professionally. He regretted the absence of communications minister Guillaume Soro and said the regulatory National Press Commission (CNP) and the media’s own supervisory body, the Press Freedom and Standards Monitoring Centre (OLPED), should be strengthened. He said journalists might be able to make use of a special police brigade being set up to protect prominent people.
The free flow and diversity of news is not guaranteed in Côte d’Ivoire. Pro-government "young patriot" groups have destroyed copies of five daily papers (24 Heures, Le Jour, Le Front, Le Libéral and Le Patriote) and one twice-weekly paper (Le Repère) in the streets of the capital since 15 October. Newspapers backing the government are not available in the rebel-held northern part of the country and the state-run TV station RTI cannot broadcast there.
Internal security minister Martin Bléou told the team police had been ordered to find and punish those who had destroyed the newspapers. He said he would provide protection to media who asked for it.
Local government minister Issa Diakité, representing communications minister Soro (who has fled Abidjan saying he feared for his life), confessed he did not know how to solve the problem of the inflammatory media and the obstacles to the free flow of news. He said the non-distribution of newspapers in the north was because government troops seized them at roadblocks in Yamoussokro.
He said the government had postponed press law reforms, including abolition of prison terms for press offences and beefing up regulatory bodies. Justice minister Henriette Dagri Diabaté said they would be introduced when the situation was more settled. She admitted it was unacceptable that Le Patriote, which supports her Rassemblement des Républicains party, had run a headline on 7 November saying "Militias formed, mass graves : Gbagbo, the black Hitler" but said the paper was simply reacting to the content of pro-Gbagbo newspapers. She called it a "balance of terror."
The Reporters Without Borders team told journalists and the head of the OLPED self-monitoring body, Alfred Dan Moussa, that though some papers were very good, it was concerned about the media’s serious professional lapses. The team said both sides were putting out disinformation when they had a responsibility in the atmosphere of hostility towards foreign (and especially French) journalists since last year’s rebellion.
The team also met locally-based foreign journalists, some of whom recognised they had made a few mistakes in their reporting. They said they no longer felt safe in the country and the AFP journalists said they did not go out in the streets alone.
Most foreign media, including RFI, plan to leave Abidjan by the end of the year for neighbouring countries. The BBC and Reuters will transfer staff to nearby Senegal and Ghana (Reuters for commercial reasons), leaving only local reporters. AFP will stay on for the moment.