“Press freedom will be total,” promised Gen. Robert Gueï, Côte d’Ivoire’s new head of state. General Gueï, 58, who overthrew the government of President Henri Konan Bedie on Christmas Eve, made this announcement just hours after his nine-man junta imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in this west African country, historically noted for its political stability.
However, the general warned local reporters against reporting “garbage,” a practice that flourished, he claimed, under the Bedie regime. “We should not confuse press freedom, the fourth estate in any sound democracy, and irresponsible journalism,” he said.
Few Ivorians seemed to miss Bedie, who found sanctuary in Togo after the coup, or his xenophobic politics of “Ivoirité” (being a native-born Ivorian). Made law in December 1994 by a national assembly largely dominated by Bedie’s conservative Democratic party, Ivoirité pitted local news organizations and journalists against one another and raised tensions among Côte d’Ivoire’s 60-odd ethnic groups. It also heightened anti-immigrant feelings in a country where over 30 percent of the 19 million residents are foreign-born.
Bedie used Ivoirité against his chief political rival, Rally of Republicans (RDR) leader Allassane Dramane Ouattara, attempting to disqualify the 57-year-old economist, former prime minister, and former deputy director of the International Monetary Fund from running for the presidency on the grounds that one of his parents came from neighboring Burkina Faso. In early August, just days after he announced plans to challenge Bedie for the presidency, Ouattara was charged with having forged his personal identification papers (purported copies of which appeared in the state-owned daily Fraternité Matin).
Local independent journalists were caught in the middle. Bedie, who was himself rumored to have at least one non-Ivorian parent, ordered the arrest of journalists, the seizure of publications, and the suspension of electronic media that supported Ouattara or criticized Bedie’s divisive politics.
Bedie’s campaign against Ouattara fueled local xenophobia. In late November, more than 10,000 immigrants from Burkina Faso were forced out of their homes in the southwestern town of Tabou after members of the local Kru ethnic group complained that foreigners had taken over their land. In addition, media organizations suspected to be close to the RDR, including some foreign news outlets and their local employees, suffered official scrutiny and reprisals ranging from phone threats and arbitrary suspension to assassination. On September 22, Abdoulaye Bakayoko, publisher of the RDR mouthpiece Le Libéral, was gunned down near the Abidjan offices of Refondation, its mother company. A week later, unknown gunmen fired at Lama Fofana, manager of the pro-RDR daily Libération, while he drove to his office.
Meanwhile, demands for government accountability grew louder and the tone of pro-opposition editorials sharpened. On September 17, an RDR rally against bias in state-owned media degenerated into street fights between protesters and police. Under a law that makes party leaders responsible for the conduct of their supporters, 11 RDR officials, including four members of Parliament, were convicted of endangering public order and sentenced to two years behind bars. (The new junta released them all on December 25.)
The RDR was also heavily fined to cover damages to the offices of the state-owned Fraternité-Matin, whose offices were ransacked that day by irate RDR protesters. The attack was apparently in retaliation for the looting a week earlier of the offices of Libération, whose night watchman was beaten to death in the incident.
Côte d’Ivoire’s independent and opposition press generally hailed the military takeover. “The people of Côte d’Ivoire are now free,” wrote Freedom Neruda, editor of the private daily Notre Voie and winner of CPJ’s 1997 Press Freedom Award. According to the pro-RDR Le Patriote, the Christmas putsch was “the most important event in our history since independence.” (Côte d’Ivoire gained independence from France in 1960.)
But despite General Gueï’s promise to respect press freedom, army officers detained two pro-Bedie reporters on December 27. Both worked for the state-owned Fraternité-Matin. They were held for several hours without charge or explanation and then released.
Raphael Lakpe, Le Populaire IMPRISONED
Jean-Khalil Sylla, Le Populaire IMPRISONED
Armed agents from the Territorial Surveillance Division, a state intelligence agency, arrested veteran journalist Lakpe, publisher of the independent daily Le Populaire, at his Abidjan residence.
Lakpe was detained in connection with an April 27 article written by Le Populaire reporter Sylla. Entitled “One Student Killed, Four Wounded,” the article alleged that on the night of April 27, police officers beat a student to death on a university campus in Port-Bouet, a suburb of Abidjan. Sylla wrote that police met with resistance when they attempted to stop a spontaneous demonstration of students protesting delay in the disbursement of their scholarships.
The student association FESCI denied Sylla’s report, emphasizing that the student in question had survived the beating. Le Populaire published a correction the next day, unlike three other news outlets that had run the same incorrect information. No other news outlet was charged in the case, however.
Sylla surrendered to police on June 9; he and Lakpe were both convicted of disseminating false news and sentenced to six months in prison.
In the weeks following Lakpe’s arrest, police detained four other journalists from Le Populaire in connection with two March articles that questioned then-President Henri Konan Bedie’s academic credentials. The articles alleged that Bedie had purchased his doctoral degree, rehashing street rumors that had already been widely published in local media. The four journalists were released after several hours of questioning, pending further investigation.
On October 20, at the end of the hearings in Abidjan’s Court of First Instance, Lakpe was also indicted on one count of “insulting the head of state.” The judge justified his decision by citing a letter Lakpe had written in early 1999 to Information Minister Boni Claverie. In the letter, Lakpe complained that he and other independent journalists faced constant verbal abuse from Tape Koulou, publisher of the government-owned daily Le National. In the letter, Lakpe wondered whether Koulou would get away with comparable slander against the head of state.
During his closing argument, the state prosecutor submitted a copy of this letter as additional evidence that Lakpe had intentionally set out to slander President Bedie. Meanwhile, Le Populaire stopped publishing on September 28, after the state-owned Edipresse company, the country’s only newspaper distributor, refused to deliver the paper to local newsstands.
A week after the trial, Lakpe was granted credit for time served in preventive detention. He was released unconditionally on October 28. Sylla was released two weeks later, on December 9.
CPJ protested the illegal detention of Lakpe and Sylla in September 10 and October 28 letters to President Bedie.
Africa Golfe Eco CENSORED
Police officers raided newsstands in Abidjan and seized copies of Africa Golfe Eco, an independent monthly focusing on economic issues. The security forces did not have a warrant for this seizure and refused to answer reporters’ questions about the operation.
The magazine’s fifth issue included a front-page feature on Côte d’Ivoire entitled “Disinformation, manipulation, corruption, embezzlement: Is the Bedie system at death’s door?” Henri Konan Bedie was Côte d’Ivoire’s head of state until Christmas Eve of 1999.
Radio Nostalgie CENSORED
The National Council on Audiovisual Communication (CNCA) imposed a three-day suspension on Radio Nostalgie, a private radio station known for its music, sports, and fashion programming.
In a statement released on September 16, the CNCA said the Abidjan-based Radio Nostalgie had infringed Côte d’Ivoire’s media laws. It provided no specifics, except to say that the station had not complied with previous warnings.
In August, on equally vague grounds, the CNCA forced Radio Nostalgie to take its news programs off the air for a period of 10 days. According to Radio Nostalgie’s programming director Ahmed Bakayoko, the station is being harassed because the authorities view it as an ally of the Rally of Republicans (RDR), an opposition party.
Levy Niamkey, RTI CENSORED
Complying with orders from the Ministry of Information, the state-owned radio and television station RTI suspended veteran TV newscaster Niamkey for a period of 60 days.
Niamkey was suspended after he aired an October 6 feature about an opposition protest. The report included a short interview with an opposition member of Parliament who allegedly called the government “a gang of corrupt and delinquent agitators.”
According to the Ivorian press, Niamkey is accused of conspiring against the ruling Democratic party (PDCI) because internal RTI rules state that coverage of opposition activities may run only at the beginning of the news. Under the regime of former president Henri Konan Bedie, the last segment of every TV news program was generally reserved for praise of Bedie and his Democratic Party.
Niamkey did not receive any salary during his two-month suspension. The RTI administration also asked him to write a letter explaining his alleged misconduct, but Niamkey reportedly refused to submit such a letter.
Jean-Baptiste Akrou, Fraternité-Matin HARASSED
Gaoussou Kamissoko, Fraternité-Matin HARASSED
Ivorian army soldiers walked into the Abidjan offices of the state-run daily Fraternité-Matin and arrested reporters Akrou and Kamissoko. No official explanation was immediately offered for the journalists’ detention inside their own newsroom.
Upon their release a few hours later, Akrou and Kamissoko told local reporters that they had been questioned about their involvement with deposed former president Henri Konan Bedie.
The military-led National Committee of Public Salvation overthrew the Bedie regime on Christmas Eve after soldiers rampaged through Abidjan and looted stores for three days.