Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Jan. 13--When this country opened the way for an independent press at the turn of the decade, the blossoming of newspapers of nearly every political persuasion was widely hailed as a critical stepping stone toward true multiparty democracy.
But here, as elsewhere in Africa, rather than marking a clean break with an authoritarian past, the era of multiparty politics has been a time of increased hardship and repression for journalists who dare criticize powerful incumbents.
Since Henri Konan Bédié became president in 1993, the government has repeatedly jailed journalists and fined publications that are judged too critical under press laws that international human rights experts say give the authorities unusually free rein to crack down on enemies. In one example, a leading opposition newspaper, La Voie, recently published a headline saying Mr. Bédié's presence at a continent-wide soccer championship brought bad luck to the Ivory Coast side, which lost the match. The government imposed two-year prison sentences on the editor and two reporters and suspended the newspaper for "offense to the head of state."
"Since Bédié came to power, journalists sleep with one eye shut," said Diégou Bailly, president of the Ivory Coast Journalists Union, and editor of the independent paper Le Jour. "Arrests, beatings, insults and scorn have become the daily lot of the press. This does nothing to honor the government, which ought to think about changing its strategy."
Beyond the outcry among local journalists, the move against La Voie and another critical paper, Le Republicain, provoked swift condemnation from diplomats and international press groups.
"Among diplomatic observers, patience is definitely beginning to fray, and informed sources will be looking with interest at the forthcoming human rights reports to be issued on Ivory Coast," one Western diplomat said. "In the beginning, there was a very big benefit of the doubt here waiting to see the democrat buried deep down inside this man. We haven't seen it yet."
In an exchange of New Year's greetings with the diplomatic corps, Mr. Bédié urged foreign diplomats to invite "your journalists" to witness the workings of an opposition press that he said had confused "their mission with the organizing of public disturbances."
Journalists in the pro-government press here have defended Mr. Bédié's stance toward the press, using an argument that has long served as a justification for some of Africa's most ruinous dictatorships.
"Our small nations are still fragile and require a lot of serenity to develop," said Venance Konan, editor of Ivoire Soir, a pro-government tabloid. "Liberty of the press, as seen by a Westerner, is different from what we see as Africans. We still have ethnic problems that can explode at any moment, for example, and when a journalist incites tribal hatred, it is better to put him in jail."
International press watchdogs say the crackdown here reflects a much broader trend in Africa, where multiparty systems are still typically headed by leaders who cut their political teeth during long years of one-party rule and have never reconciled themselves to being called to account by a critical press.
In Ethiopia and Zambia, which have have been widely praised for democratic and economic reforms after years of corrupt and repressive government, press experts say critical journalists have nonetheless been the target of frequent and sometimes violent witch-hunts.
In Kenya, which is preparing to hold multiparty elections, the authorities recently announced that they were contemplating new rules governing press behavior, including that of foreign journalists.
In Nigeria, which long had what was arguably the most vibrant press in Africa, the military authorities have recently arrested dozens of journalists, ransacked their offices and closed their publications.
"In one country after another we have seen the press lose many of its top editors, as papers have been closed down, reporters jailed and people forced into exile," said Kakuna Kerina, the Africa coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based press group.
"Under the one-party dictatorships, people at least knew where they stood. Nowadays, when we have these supposed rights, every time a journalist takes a step toward claiming them, they are yanked two or three steps backward."
This article first appeared in the New York Times on Jan. 14, 1996. Copyright © 1996 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission.