Attacks on the Press 2000: Ivory Coast (Côte D’ivoire)

SOLDIERS UNDER THE COMMAND OF ROBERT GUEI, the retired general who seized power from an elected government on Christmas Eve, 1999, terrorized Côte d’Ivoire during their 10 months in power. As part of a general pattern of human rights abuses, they raided newsrooms at will, seized reporters’ equipment, banned news organizations, and forced journalists to perform military-style push-ups while singing pro-junta anthems. On more than one occasion, reporters were tortured.

Gueï claimed that he was not interested in power, and had seized control merely to save the country from the ravages of Ivoirité, the nativist, anti-immigrant movement that has dominated Côte d’Ivoire’s political life for the past seven years. In early August, however, he declared himself a candidate for the October 22 presidential election. When that vote went against him, he tried to stop the counting of ballots, only to be thrown out of office by a popular revolt.

Gueï’s National Public Salvation Committee (CNSP) used state television and radio to browbeat critics of the regime. In a June 23 broadcast, for example, the CNSP announced that it would censor any information “likely to negatively affect the credibility of journalists, national security, and social peace.” It also threatened to prosecute journalists who “compromise[d] national security.” (Local press laws impose criminal penalties for defamation and allow the state to prosecute reporters who publish leaked official documents.)

In late June, several pro-opposition news organizations published rumors of a coup plot by junta officials angered by Gueï’s support for a controversial draft constitution that required presidential candidates “to be of Ivorian origin, born of a father and a mother themselves of Ivorian origin.” A few days later, on July 4, disgruntled soldiers raided the studios of the Abidjan radio station Nostalgie FM to air grievances against Gueï. The soldiers said Gueï had reneged on a vow to pay each of them US$9000 for helping him seize power.

That same day, the junta banned Nostalgie FM for its alleged complicity with the rebellious soldiers and the RDR. (The popular station resumed broadcasting shortly after the October 26, 2000, uprising that overthrew General Gueï.) On July 5, having described the soldiers’ actions as a failed coup sponsored by the opposition Rally of Republicans (RDR) party, Gueï claimed that certain local journalists had received money from the RDR in exchange for writing negative stories about the CNSP regime.

Meanwhile, the pro-RDR daily newspaper Le Liberal was banned on July 7. It resumed publication two weeks later, but appeared irregularly for the remainder of the year.

On September 8, the independent Abidjan daily Le Jour ran an article by veteran political reporter Joachim Beugré that cast doubt on Gueï’s parentage. Gueï immediately summoned Beugré and his publisher, Diegou Bailly, to his office and severely reprimanded them. Gueï’s bodyguards later drove Beugré to an open field on the outskirts of Abidjan, where they beat him brutally.

On September 21, local journalists observed a news blackout to protest the beating. (The state radio and television network RTI joined the boycott, despite stern warnings from the government.) The next day, hundreds of media professionals marched in downtown Abidjan and demanded that Gueï publicly apologize to Beugré. Gueï complied, hoping to improve his battered image a month ahead of the presidential vote.

Nineteen people submitted applications to the junta-appointed Supreme Court to run for president. Fourteen candidates were rejected, including the RDR leader and former prime minister Allassane Ouattara, who lost out because of his “dubious ethnic origins and falsified identification documents.”

On October 22, Gueï stopped the ballot counting and declared himself the winner after exit polls showed him trailing Laurent Gbagbo, leader of the opposition Ivorian Popular Front (FPI). Outraged by this high-handed power play, thousands of people took to the streets and forced the dictator from power.

Gbagbo was sworn in as president on October 26. That same day, soldiers loyal to the new president kidnapped and beat Bakary Nimaga, editor of the RDR daily Le Liberal. The next day, FPI supporters ransacked the paper’s offices. (Over 150 people died in post-election violence between RDR and FPI backers.)

President Gbagbo, a pioneer of the country’s democracy movement, asked local media to stop what he described as “abusive” coverage of the president and to “concentrate more on socio-economic and cultural information as well as plural political discussions.” His wife, Simone Gbagbo, an FPI member of Parliament, accused the international media of “distorting the realities in Côte d’Ivoire.”

On December 15, over a hundred youths marched in Abidjan to protest against foreign news coverage of Côte d’Ivoire. The demonstrators carried placards with slogans such as “BBC-RFI liars” and “Let us live with our Ivoirité.” It was not clear whether the youths had any links to the new government.

Le Jeune Democrate

A dozen armed soldiers raided the offices of the independent Abidjan daily Le Jeune Democrate. The soldiers, who did not have a warrant, occupied the paper’s offices for four hours, verbally assaulting and manhandling its editorial staff.

The raid resulted from coverage of an alleged coup plot in the February 5 issue of Le Jeune Democrate. The paper reported that Mouassi Grena, an army commander close to the ruling junta, had publicly accused three prominent opposition figures of conspiring with members of former president Henri Konan Bedié’s family to overthrow the military regime of Gen. Robert Gueï, who had himself deposed Bedié in 1999.

The soldiers who raided the paper’s offices said they were looking for Laurent Nahounou, the author of the article in question, in order to verify the accuracy of his information. They also warned the journalists against reporting “garbage” about Gueï and Allassane Dramane Ouattara, leader of the Rally of Republicans, a political party that was initially close to the junta.

An hour after the raid, two officers from the Investigation Brigade visited the paper’s offices and asked to speak with publisher Ignace Dassohiri, who was not present that day.

CPJ protested the raid in a March 28 letter to General Gueï.

Maxime Wengue, Le National
David Bogui,
Le National
Solange Baka, Le National
Pierre Lemauvais, Le National
Rasis Paccola, Le National
Vincent Yobouet Nguessan, Le National

Armed soldiers acting on behalf of the National Public Salvation Committee (CNSP), Côte d’Ivoire’s ruling junta, raided the offices of Le National, an Abidjan daily known to be close to deposed former president Henri Konan Bedié.

The soldiers, who did not have a warrant, verbally abused and later detained six of the paper’s staffers in connection with an article entitled “How ADO Misled General Gueï” that appeared in the February 10 issue of Le National. The report alleged that Allassane Dramane Ouattara, leader of the Rally of Republicans party, had considerable influence on Gen. Robert Gueï, head of the CNSP junta, who had ruled the country as president since seizing power on Christmas Eve in 1999.

The detained staffers included reporters Bogui and Wengue, editors Paccola and Lemauvais, Baka, a photographer, and Nguessan, a sales agent. They were all released three hours later.

CPJ protested the raid in a March 28 letter to General Gueï.

Tape Koulou, Le National

Koulou, publisher of the private daily Le National, received a phone call at his Abidjan home from Maj. Gaoudi Oulatta of the National Public Salvation Committee (CNSP), the ruling junta, ordering him to appear within 20 minutes at CNSP headquarters in Plateau, Abidjan’s business district.

When Koulou arrived at the CNSP offices half an hour later, he was immediately detained by a crowd of agitated young soldiers who warned that he would pay dearly for being 10 minutes late and added that Major Oulatta was too busy to see him.

Koulou was then interrogated by army officers who he said were former bodyguards of presidential candidate Allassane Dramane Ouattara of the Rally of Republicans (RDR), a political party that for a time had close links to high-ranking CNSP officials.

The soldiers warned Koulou against writing negatively about Ouattara and the RDR, confined him to a windowless room for 10 hours, and then set him free.

According to Ivorian journalists, Koulou was harassed because of his past association with former president Henri Konan Bedié, whom the CNSP ousted in a military coup on December 24, 1999.

Soir Info

Three armed soldiers led by Maj. Issa Touré forced their way into the newsroom of the independent Abidjan daily Soir Info looking for reporters Alain Bouabré and Claude Daassé.

The soldiers wanted to question the reporters concerning their March 4 article about a strike of woodcutters employed by Scieries du Bandama, a state-owned company in southwestern Côte d’Ivoire. In the article, the two journalists argued that the government should mediate negotiations between the workers and management over salary and work conditions.

Learning that Bouabré and Daassé were out on assignment, the soldiers interrogated publisher Fero Bi about what they described as the newspaper’s hidden political agenda. They left the paper an hour later.

On March 7, the same soldiers showed up at Daassé’s home in an Abidjan suburb, where they questioned the reporter’s wife about his whereabouts and political ties. On March 8, the soldiers again visited Daassé’s home and interrogated family members in his absence.

CPJ protested the raid in a March 28 letter to Gen. Robert Gueï.

Le National

A band of rogue soldiers under the command of Priv. Moussa Traore raided the offices of the Abidjan daily Le National and manhandled its staff. Before they forced their way into the paper’s newsroom, the soldiers fired three rounds into the air and expressed hostility toward the media. Once inside the newsroom, they ordered a dozen journalists to perform a series of push-ups and roughed up those who refused to obey.

The incident apparently related to a piece in that day’s issue of Le National, criticizing the country’s military ruler, Gen. Robert Gueï.

The raid lasted for two hours, during which time the journalists were repeatedly threatened with death. According to Soir Info, another independent Abidjan daily, Traore and his armed companions told the journalists, “We can kill you and nothing will happen. Gueï is president but we are the true rulers.”

None of the soldiers faced disciplinary proceedings in connection with the raid, which CPJ protested in a March 28 letter to General Gueï.

Michel Kouamé, Fraternité Matin

Kouamé, publisher of Fraternité Matin, a government-owned daily, was arrested at the Abidjan International Airport when he returned from three months of exile in Togo.

Kouamé fled the country after the December 24, 1999, military coup that brought Gen. Robert Gueï and a nine-man junta to power. The journalist said he feared for his life because the junta had accused him of biased reporting favoring the deposed regime of Henri Konan Bedié. But as a government newspaper, Kouamé later told CPJ, Fraternité Matin’s mandate was to support all state decisions, regardless of which government was in power.

Upon his arrest at the airport, Kouamé was driven to a military base in Akouedo, a suburb of Abidjan, for questioning. He was released a day later.

Jules Toualy, Le Jeune Democrate

Toualy, a reporter with the private daily Le Jeune Democrate, was arrested on April 9 and tortured by two soldiers close to the ruling National Public Salvation Committee (CNSP).

Toualy’s captors, who were dressed in street clothes but carried military identification cards along with pistols and a submachine gun, arrested him at his newspaper’s offices and drove him to the Akouedo military barracks, in a suburb of Abidjan.

Toualy was threatened and then severely tortured when he refused to reveal the sources for an April 8 Le Jeune Democrate article reporting that six mercenaries from neighboring Guinea had been arrested for helping to instigate a March 28 mutiny at a military base in the Ivorian town of Daloa, 80 miles northwest of Abidjan. (The mutineers were demanding payment of salaries and perks that the CNSP had promised them after it seized power on Christmas Eve, 1999.)

During five hours of torture, Toualy was twice beaten unconscious. He was then taken into a cell and asked to identify six inmates as the sources for his article, which they were not, according to CPJ sources. Toualy was then released. He later checked himself into a hospital, having suffered a severe concussion and other serious injuries.

CPJ protested the arrest and torture of Toualy in an April 13 letter to Côte d’Ivoire head of state Gen. Robert Gueï.

MAY 16
Patrice Pohe, La Référence
Jean-Claude Ragaza, La Référence
Eugene Kanga, La Référence

A group of soldiers raided the editorial offices of La Référence, a private Abidjan-based daily newspaper, vandalized the premises, and harassed four journalists physically.

The soldiers were connected with the ruling National Public Salvation Committee (CNSP). La Référence is published by the Rally of Republicans (RDR), an opposition party. The soldiers damaged computers and other equipment before arresting four journalists, including Pohe, the newspaper’s managing editor, and reporters Ragaza and Kanga. CPJ was unable to identify the fourth journalist, who was said to be a female photographer.

The journalists were then driven to La Primature, the office of the head of state, where they were made to crawl and do push-ups in front of passersby. Soldiers also kicked and whipped the journalists before releasing them without charge an hour later.

It remains unclear why the soldiers attacked the newspaper and manhandled the four journalists. According to Pohe, however, the raid on La Référence was prompted by a front-page photograph of CNSP leader Gen. Robert Gueï with his finger in his nose.

On May 12, La Référence also alleged that Gueï’s wife had been using public funds to finance trips to campaign for her husband in advance of the September presidential elections. And in a May 16 editorial, La Référence claimed that General Gueï’s regime was weak and could easily be overthrown.

MAY 16
Blaise Sahiri, Le Bucheron
Vacaba Touré, Le Bucheron

Sahiri and Touré, respectively managing editor and reporter at Le Bucheron, were told to come to Judicial Police headquarters and report to Security Minister Lassana Palenfo, who detained them at his office for five hours.

Palenfo was apparently upset about an article by Touré titled “The Disillusionment of the Three Pyromaniacs: Lassana Palenfo, Abdoulaye Coulibaly, and Issa Diakité.” The article alleged that the three men, all supporters of opposition leader Allassane Dramane Ouattara, had tried to assassinate the country’s military leader, Gen. Robert Gueï. Palenfo asked the two journalists to print a retraction of their article, which they apparently did not do.

All media outlets and journalists

Information Minister Captain Henri Cesar Sama announced that the ruling National Public Salvation Committee (CNSP) would soon release a list of measures designed to block the publication of any information “likely to negatively affect the credibility of journalists, national security and social peace.”

Captain Sama, who had replaced journalist Levy Niamkey as information minister on May 19, called on journalists to refrain from becoming “the extended arm of politicians with dubious goals.” The minister added that he “would not hesitate to make use of the law which provides a spate of punishments for journalists who deliberately compromise national security.”

Hours after the Information Ministry released Captain Sama’s statement, the state-operated Radiodiffusion Television Ivoirienne network (RTI) pulled a TV commercial for the opposition Rally of Republicans (RDR) party off the air on the grounds that it contained snatches of “misleading, mystic, and Nazi” music. However, Ivorian journalists contacted by CPJ said the commercial in question contained no music at all, but rather showed RDR leader Allassane Dramane Ouattara addressing a crowd of supporters in a stadium.

CPJ protested the minister’s threat in a June 28 letter to Gen. Robert Gueï, the country’s military ruler.

Bourehima Traore, Le National
Asse Alafe, Le National

Military police arrested Alafe, editor of the Abidjan daily Le National, and his deputy, Traore, and took them to the office of police prefect Yapo Kouassi for questioning in connection with articles in the paper that reported on rumors of an impending coup against military ruler Gen. Robert Gueï.

In a June 21 article entitled “Coup d’État, or What?” Traore alleged that General Gueï’s CNSP junta was at risk of being toppled in a coup. The next day, the junta declared a nationwide security alert.

In a second article that ran on June 23 under the headline “Poor Taste,” Traore protested the fact that Information Minister Henri-Cesar Sama and Security Minister Lassana Palenfo had appeared on national television to say that nothing had happened on June 22, the day of the security alert, while street rumors had it that the head of state had been killed or taken hostage.

Upon their arrest at the newspaper’s Abidjan offices, the two journalists were asked to reveal their sources for the sake of national security. Having refused to do so, they were charged with publishing false news and insulting the head of state.

No trial date had been chosen by year’s end. Meanwhile, October presidential elections to restore civilian rule led to more violence when Gueï tried to alter the results in his favor, sparking a popular uprising that brought Laurent Gbagbo to power.

Nostalgie FM

During the July 4 army mutiny, 10 heavily armed soldiers loyal to the military government of Gen. Robert Gueï searched the premises of Nostalgie FM, a private radio station in Abidjan, before dismissing its personnel and confiscating the station’s keys. The premises were then placed under heavy military guard.

There was no official explanation for the raid, but CPJ sources said the Gueï government was retaliating against Nostalgie FM for allowing a mutinous soldier on the air to protest the nonpayment of cash bonuses that General Gueï had promised when he seized power in December 1999.

The station resumed broadcasting in the week following the October 26 popular uprising that overthrew the junta.

All media outlets and journalists

In the aftermath of what he described as a “failed coup,” Côte d’Ivoire’s military ruler Gen. Robert Gueï warned local journalists that they severe punishment for politically motivated “bias” and “distortion of facts.”

General Gueï said that the ruling National Public Salvation Committee (CNSP) possessed “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 that publish such unethical reports will be suspended. I ask journalists to be careful.”

General Gueï issued this warning one day after the CNSP junta shut down the offices of the private broadcaster Nostalgie FM, forcing the popular music and sports station off the air.

Patrice Guehi, Le Patriote
Meite Sindou, Le Patriote
Kone Yoro, Le Liberal
Emmanuel Tanoh, Le Liberal
Diomande Ibrahim, Le Liberal
Yves Zogbo, Radio Nostalgie FM
Sran Haizy, Le Jeune Democrate

On July 6, the vice director of the independent radio station Nostalgie FM and five other journalists, three from the daily Le Liberal and two from the daily Le Patriote, were summoned to the headquarters of the ruling junta for questioning in connection with a July 4 soldiers’ mutiny.

Nostalgie FM and the two newspapers backed the opposition Rally of Republicans (RDR), whose leader, Allassane Dramane Ouattara, was believed to have instigated the mutiny.

The journalists summoned were publisher Yoro, photographer Tanoh, and office manager Ibrahim of Le Liberal; Nostalgie FM vice-director Zogbo; Guehi, publisher of Le Patriote, and Sindou, the paper’s editor in chief. Also on July 6, Haizy, editor of the private daily Le Jeune Democrate, was briefly detained and interrogated at a military base near Abidjan.

All seven journalists were released later that day, having been forced to crawl, sing pro-junta anthems, and perform push-ups.

Mohammed Fofanah Dara, BBC
Kady Sidibe, Le Patriote

Ivorian soldiers attacked and roughed up Dara, a sports reporter for the BBC’s French-language Africa service, while he was covering a pro-France, anti-government rally in downtown Abidjan. Though the soldiers pummeled his head with their rifle butts, Dara somehow escaped without serious injury.

Soldiers injured several other civilians during the rally, which an opposition party called two days after nationwide demonstrations held to protest a French government minister’s negative comments about attempts to restore democracy following the military coup of December 1999.

It was not clear what prompted the attack on Dara. Some local sources claimed the soldiers had attempted to steal Dara’s minidisc recorder, and then attacked him when he tried to resist.

During the same demonstration, another group of soldiers assaulted photographer Sidibe of the private daily Le Patriote as she was taking pictures of irate soldiers chasing demonstrators. Sidibe was repeatedly slapped in the face and kicked in the stomach by the soldiers, who also confiscated her camera and film.

Khristian Kara, Le Libéral
Kone Yoro,
Le Libéral

Kara, a reporter for the Abidjan daily Le Libéral, and Yoro, the paper’s publisher, were arrested on the same day that the paper carried a story about the alleged corruption of the ruling military junta.

Written by Kara, the piece reported that military ruler Gen. Robert Gueï had drawn US$1.2 million from his personal account to finance his presidential campaign. The controversy arose from the fact that Gueï had publicly promised not to run for the presidency. Le Libéral published a copy of a check allegedly carrying the general’s signature to back up its claims that he was in fact planning to run.

The two journalists were charged with defamation and released a day later. The charges were dropped after General Gueï was deposed in a popular uprising on October 26.

Freedom Neruda, Notre Voie

Neruda, editor of the independent daily Notre Voie, received a summons to “immediately and in all haste” appear at the headquarters of the Ivorian police in Abidjan. The journalist responded to the summons on August 31 at around 9:30 a.m. He was then interrogated about his editorial in the August 30 edition of Notre Voie.

In his article, Neruda (whose real name is Roch D’Assomption Tieti) warned the country’s military leader, Gen. Robert Gueï, against misappropriating state funds to build up his native village in order to make it Côte D’Ivoire’s new capital.

Neruda, the recipient of a 1991 International Press Freedom Award from CPJ, was released four hours later without charges.

Joachim Beugré, Le Jour
Diegou Bailly, Le Jour

Beugré, an editor at the private daily Le Jour, was savagely beaten by three soldiers on orders from Gen. Robert Gueï, Côte d’Ivoire’s military leader. Beugré and the paper’s publisher, Diegou Bailly, were summoned to the presidential palace in Abidjan on the afternoon of September 8. General Gueï interrogated the two journalists personally and pressed them to reveal their sources for an article about his parentage that had appeared in that day’s edition of Le Jour.

Published under Beugré’s byline, the article pointed out that according to General Gueï’s birth certificate, the general’s father had a different surname. Le Jour published a copy of the birth certificate to support Beugré’s argument.

Bailly was released without charge after General Gueï explained to him that in his tribe a son did not take his father’s surname, according to local press reports confirmed by CPJ sources. The matter did not end there, however.

Acting on Gueï’s orders, three soldiers drove Beugré to his Abidjan home, which they searched without warrant. The soldiers then took the journalist to an open field near Abidjan International Airport, beat him savagely, and threatened even harsher retribution if he continued to report “maliciously” about General Gueï and the military junta.

Beugré spent three days recuperating in a local medical center. CPJ protested the attack in a September 13 letter to General Gueï.

All media

The military government’s information minister, Capt. Henri Cesar Sama, summoned two dozen local publishers and editors to a meeting where he ordered them to stop reporting on the military, the ruling junta, and their activities.

Using what CPJ’s sources called “trashy street language,” Sama said the local press was “weakening the National Public Salvation Committee,” which overthrew a democratically elected government in December 1999. Sama also threatened that “civilians would be the first to suffer” if the junta was destabilized by negative media coverage.

Patrice Guehi, Le Patriote
Meite Sindou, Le Patriote

Presidential adviser Major Desiré Dacoury summoned Le Patriote reporter Guehi and the paper’s publisher, Sindou, for questioning after they published a copy of Gen. Robert Gueï’s birth certificate in an article that cast doubt on the military dictator’s parentage by pointing out that his father had a different surname. (Another Abidjan daily, Le Jour, had broken the story a day earlier; see September 8 case.)

Upon their release several hours later, the two journalists told Agence France-Presse that Major Dacoury had berated them for “attempting to set Côte d’Ivoire afire” with the help of the opposition Rally of Republicans (RDR).

Bakary Nimaga, Le Libéral

Nimaga, editor of the pro-opposition daily Le Libéral, was arrested without warrant, beaten, and dragged to the Agban military base in the Adjamé neighborhood of Abidjan by soldiers loyal to junta leader General Robert Gueï.

Army officers accused Nimaga of spying for the opposition Rally of Republicans (RDR), then released him a few hours later. Nimaga suffered bruises to his left arm and his legs.

That same day, a popular uprising drove General Gueï from office.

La Référence
Le Libéral

A mob of rioting students ransacked the Abidjan newsrooms of the private dailies Le Libéral and La Référence, both known to back the opposition Rally of Republicans (RDR). Computers at both newspapers were smashed during the assault, according to local journalists.

It was not clear what motivated the attack, but some sources linked the students to Laurent Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI). Gbagdo had been declared president the day before, after a popular uprising drove Gen. Robert Gueï from office.

That same day, FPI and RDR supporters fought deadly street battles during unrest over the exclusion of RDR leader Allassane Dramane Ouattara from the election. More than 150 people died in the riots, most of them RDR supporters.