According to diplomats and eyewitnesses, Hélène was shot by a police officer on Tuesday evening outside the national police headquarters in central Abidjan while he was waiting to interview detained opposition activists who were being released. The officer was immediately arrested and is still being detained for questioning.
Hélène was waiting in his car in front of the headquarters when the officer walked over and asked what he was doing, according to press reports. He said he was waiting to talk to opposition party members. The police officer went into the building, then came back out and fired two shots, hitting Hélène in the head and killing him instantly.
Although the motives for the killing are unknown, the assassination comes against a background of anti-French sentiment since Ivory Coast plunged into civil war and crisis in September 2002. France has troops in the country and helped broker a peace agreement signed in Paris January 2003. The international—and especially French—media have also come under attack from the local press since the crisis began.
Jérôme Bouvier, director of RFI's French-language services, told CPJ that the climate for foreign journalists had been extremely difficult but seemed to have improved in the last few months. "That's what makes it even more shocking," he said. " It happened in the center of the city, in front of an official building full of people in uniform."
Hélène had been covering Africa for RFI for more than 10 years, including conflicts in Rwanda and Somalia. He was known for his rigor, independence, and calm. In one of many tributes, French President Jacques Chirac described Hélène as "a great professional who died doing his job in the service of providing information about the Africa he knew so well."
"CPJ calls on the Ivoirian government to conduct an immediate and impartial inquiry into this brutal murder," said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. "We also urge the government to do everything in its power to ensure a safe environment for both the local and international press."
"Jean Hélène will be sorely missed," added CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Julia Crawford, who previously worked at RFI. "He was a journalist of courage and integrity, an expert on Africa, which he knew and loved."