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New York, September 13, 2000 --- The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is gravely disturbed by the continued brutal persecution of journalists who criticize Côte d'Ivoire president Robert Gueï and the activities of his military government. In a formal protest letter sent today to President Gueï, CPJ executive director Ann Cooper said, "We are particularly alarmed at the recent beating of editor Joachim Beugré of the private daily Le Jour by three soldiers under your command."
Beugré and his publisher, Diegou Bailly, were summoned to the presidential palace in Abidjan on the afternoon of September 8, according to CPJ sources in Côte d'Ivoire. President Gueï personally interrogated the two journalists, pressing them to reveal their sources for an article about his parentage that had appeared in that day's edition of Le Jour.
Published under Beugré's byline, the article pointed out that Gueï's surname is different from the father's surname that appears on his birth certificate. Le Jour published a copy of the birth certificate to support Beugré's argument.
Ban on Coverage of Army
Bailly was released without charge, according to local press reports confirmed by CPJ sources, after Gueï explained to him that in his tribe a son does not take his father's surname. The matter did not end there, however. Acting on Gueï's orders, three soldiers drove Beugré to his Abidjan home, which they searched without warrant. The soldiers then took the journalist to an open field near Abidjan International Airport, beat him savagely, and threatened even harsher retribution if he continued to report "maliciously" about Gue&iml; and the military junta. Beugré spent four days in hospital recuperating from his injuries.
Later on Sept. 8, Information Minister Captain Henri-Cesar Sama summoned all Abidjan-based publishers and editors-in-chief to his office and ordered them to stop covering the activities of the Army and the ruling National Public Salvation Committee (CNSP). The minister claimed that negative media coverage had "weakened the CNSP," and added that "civilians would be the first to suffer" if the junta was destabilized as a result of bad press.
Meanwhile, National Union of Côte d'Ivoire Journalists president Honoré Dé Yedagne, who interviewed Gueï shortly after the attack on Beugré, quoted the president as saying that as far as he was concerned, "human rights no longer existed in Côte d'Ivoire," and that he was not responsible for the behavior of his soldiers.
"CPJ condemns all such reckless statements by you and other high-ranking junta officers, which have contributed to the degradation of press freedom in Côte d'Ivoire since you seized power last December," Cooper said in the protest letter. "Moreover," she added, "you have shown little interest in reversing this trend." On July 5, one day after the banning of the popular independent station Radio Nostalgie, Gueï publicly threatened to punish local journalists severely for alleged "bias" and "distortion of facts" in their reporting.
We Hold Gueï Directly Responsible
Cooper also stated, "CPJ condemns in the strongest terms your interrogation of journalists Diegou Bailly and Joachim Beugré, and we hold you directly responsible for the abuse that Beugré suffered from soldiers under your command. As an organization of journalists devoted to defending press freedom around the world, we urge you to cease using brute force to stifle legitimate criticism of your government."
In response to the growing repression, the Union of Cote d'Ivoire Journalists (UNJCI) announced on September 11 that it would boycott coverage of government and junta activities starting September 14. Several local dailies expressed their outrage through front-page articles. Notre Voie screamed "The Ivorian Press in Danger," in its September 11 edition, while Le Jour denounced the increasing number of press freedom violations as "barbaric."