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New York, July 7, 2000 — On July 5, in the aftermath of what he described as a “failed coup,” Côte d’Ivoire’s military ruler General Robert Gueï warned local journalists to be “careful” because they will now be severely punished for politically motivated “bias” and “distortion of facts” in their reporting, sources in Abidjan told CPJ.
General Gueï said that the ruling National Public Salvation Committee (CNSP) had collected “evidence” that local journalists had received payment from political parties in exchange for writing negative stories about the military regime. “From now on, bias and distortion of facts by the press will be systematically punished,” the 59-year-old retired general warned at a press conference. “Media outlets which publish such unethical reports will be suspended… I ask journalists to be careful.”
General Gueï issued this warning only two days after the CNSP junta shut down the offices of the private broadcaster Nostalgie FM, forcing the popular music and sports station off the air. On July 4, ten heavily armed soldiers searched the premises of Nostalgie FM before dismissing its personnel and confiscating the station’s keys. The station remains closed and under massive military guard.
No official explanation has been offered for this action. CPJ sources said that Gueï’s CNSP junta was retaliating against Nostalgie FM because on July 4 the station had allowed the head of a group of soldiers to air a protest over nonpayment of perks promised by Gueï. Soldiers crowded city streets of Côte d’Ivoire on that day to air grievances against Gueï. The soldiers said Gueï had vowed to pay each of them $9,000 for assisting in his successful seizeure of control on December 24, 1999, the day Gueï forced the democratically elected government of Henri Konan Bedie out of power.
The disgruntled soldiers commandeered vehicles and erected road blocks throughout the commercial capital Abidjan. According to international news reports and CPJ’s sources, after hours of negotiations with the junta on July 5, the mutineers agreed to accept payment in the amount of $1,600 each.
On July 6, the Nostalgie FM vice-director and five journalists — three from the daily Le Liberal and two from another daily, Le Patriote — were summoned to the offices of General Gueï for questioning in connection with the soldiers’ mutiny. The two papers and the radio station are reportedly aligned with the Rally of Republicans (RDR), opponents of Gueï. The CNSP junta suspects RDR’s leader, Allassane Ouattara, of precipitating the countrywide unrest on July 4, which claimed the lives of three soldiers and one civilian and left a dozen others in critical condition.
The journalists summoned are publisher Kone Yoro, photographer Tano Emmanuel and office manager Diomande Ibrahim, all from Le Liberal; Nostalgie FM vice-director Yves Zogbo, Jr.; and publisher Patrice Guehi and editor-in-chief Meite Sindou of Le Patriote. Another journalist, editor-in-chief Sran Haizy of the private daily Le Jeune Democrate, was also briefly detained and interrogated in a military base near Abidjan on July 6. All were released later that day after they were forced to crawl, sing pro-junta anthems and perform 150 push-ups.
Also on July 6, a presidential decree removed from their posts publisher Sy Savane and editor-in-chief Hien Solo of the state-operated daily Fraternite-Matin for their alleged pro-opposition leaning, CPJ sources say. Another presidential decree issued that same day terminated the employment of Kone Lancine and Traore Abou, editor-in-chief and news director, respectively, with the state television network RTI. No reason was given for the dismissal.
Le Liberal did not appear on July 7. Sources contacted by CPJ said that the paper was ordered closed for an indefinite period by the junta in retaliation for the paper’s supposed affiliation with the RDR and a July 6 front-page article headlined “12,000 Mutineers Want 78 Billion Francs.” The report, which clearly alluded to the July 4 unrest, charged that General Gueï’s regime was at the mercy of Côte d’Ivoire’s 12,000-man armed forces.
On June 28, CPJ sent a letter to General Gueï protesting the government’s June 23 announcement that censorship would soon be made law in Côte d’Ivoire.
“We find General Gueï’s comments extremely ominous, given his documented disregard for press freedom,” noted CPJ’s Africa program coordinator Yves Sorokobi. “We urge the general to refrain from interfering in the legitimate work of journalists covering events in Côte d’Ivoire. We will be monitoring developments closely.”