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In Ivory Coast, pro-Ouattara forces harass journalists

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U.N. investigators check a reported mass grave in Yopougon, where one journalist was said to be buried. (UN/AP)

New York, May 24, 2011--The new government of freshly sworn-in Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara must launch a serious investigation into alleged harassment of journalists, including the killing of a reporter, by the republican forces of the Ivory Coast (the French acronym is FRCI), the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The FRCI backed Ouattara against his political rival Laurent Gbagbo.

Ouattara was officially sworn in on Saturday, ending a bloody power struggle for the West African country's presidency: The battle started started when deposed president Gbagbo contested UN-backed results of November 2010 presidential elections that declared Ouattara the winner. In a letter to Ouattara earlier this month, CPJ asked the new president to improve press freedom and to hold accountable all those responsible for press abuses, as he has repeatedly pledged to do in public remarks in recent weeks.

But the abuse of journalists has been continuing unabated. Over the weekend, the local press freedom group Ivorian Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CIPJ) reported the discovery of the bullet-ridden body of Radio Yopougon Assistant Editor-in-Chief Lago Sylvain Gagneto. The 42-year-old Gagneto was found among dozens of bodies buried in mass graves in Yopougon, the largest neighborhood in the economic capital Abidjan. CIPJ told CPJ the body was identified some time last week.

The time and circumstances of Gagneto's killing were unclear. Gagneto's family member claimed to have witnessed his murder and has told local journalists that Gagneto was gunned down by FRCI forces as he fled from Yopougon with his family. Some believe that Gagneto was killed simply for being a journalist and more particularly, because his station was under the authority of a town councilman belonging to Gbagbo's party, and that he was Bété (Gbagbo's ethnic group) and not part of Ouattara's ethnic group.

After capturing Yopougon earlier this month from pro-Gbagbo forces, FRCI fighters ransacked and later burned down Radio Yopougon, a community station, forcing its personnel into hiding, according to local journalists. FRCI forces still occupy the station's grounds. Radio Yopougon Editor-in-Chief Paule-Benedicte Tagro Guyemane is now in hiding herself in an undisclosed location, sources told CPJ.

An Interior Ministry spokesman, police Capt. Koui Bernard, told CPJ on Monday he was not aware of the allegations and required time to make inquiries.

"We mourn the death of Lago Sylvain Gagneto and extend our condolences to his family and friends. We also condemn the destruction of Radio Yopougon," said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. "President Ouattara pledged to hold to account all those under his authority responsible for abuses. He must act immediately to rein in his forces and uphold the rule of law."

Gagneto, a father of two, was the Secretary-General of the Organization of Professional Journalists of Ivory Coast (OJPCI) and had worked throughout his career for newspapers of various political allegiances, according to CIPJ.

CIPJ has documented numerous reports of harassment, threats, and intimidation of journalists by marauding FRCI forces claiming to be searching for weapons in the neighborhoods of Abidjan, according to CPJ research. This week, two editors-in-chief, Ferdinand Bailly of news website Infocotedivoire.net, and Florida Basile Bahi of Sport Mag went into hiding, after they were denounced as "Gbagbo journalists" by local youths in the streets, according to CIPJ.

At least three media workers were murdered by forces loyal to both Ouattara and Gbagbo during the five-month long standoff that followed the disputed November 2010 presidential elections, according to CPJ research.

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