Attacks on the Press 2001: Ivory Coast

On January 8, President Laurent Gbagbo’s government thwarted an attempted coup by mercenaries whom the ruling Popular Front (FPI) accused of being in the pay of Burkina Faso and other countries bordering Côte d’Ivoire.

The rebels occupied the compound of the official RTI broadcasting network and aired communiqués saying that the elected government had been overthrown.

Government troops then shelled the RTI compound, ransacked studios, and destroyed broadcasting equipment. Thirty-one rebels were arrested after an hour-long shoot-out.

In the wake of the botched coup, authorities launched a crackdown against former government and Army officials and journalists perceived to be hostile to the Gbagbo regime. The government particularly targeted supporters of the opposition Rally of Republicans (RDR), whose leader, Allassane Ouattara, fled abroad, citing security concerns.

Several local journalists suffered harsh reprisals for allegedly propagandizing on behalf of the RDR. Police harassed others for their non-Ivorian descent or for being Muslim northerners in a country ruled since independence by southern Christians.

On January 13, local newspapers reported that “unidentified persons” had ransacked the home of Meite Sindou, editor of the pro-RDR daily Le Patriote. On February 10, police raided the printing press of Le Jour, an Abidjan daily known for its strongly independent stance. The officers, who claimed to be acting on an anonymous phone tip, forced a security guard to lie prone while they searched the premises for “arms and mercenaries.” They found nothing.

And despite President Gbagbo’s insistence that “no journalist [would] be imprisoned” by his administration, Sindou and four other staffers from Le Patriote were prosecuted for “inciting people to rebellion” in the wake of the failed January 8 coup.

The incitement charges were later dropped. But on May 10, Sindou and Le Patriote publisher Patrice Lenonhin became the first journalists to be convicted of work-related crimes under President Gbagbo. Charged with defamation for reporting on alleged corruption and embezzlement at a local nongovernmental organization called the Human Rights League (LIDHO), both men received suspended three-month jail terms.

The case against Sindou and Le Patriote, often described more as a feisty political pamphlet than a newspaper, moved the Press Freedom and Media Ethics Observatory (OLPED), a local media watchdog group, to urge a public boycott of allegedly “non-credible” papers.

OLPED issued the statement on May 3, World Press Freedom Day. Journalists of all political persuasions responded by accusing OLPED of unethical behavior. However, OLPED’s take on Ivorian media ethics drew strong support from President Gbagbo and Prime Minister Affi N’Guessan. Speaking to a gathering of media professionals, N’Guessan asserted that Côte d’Ivoire needed an “appeased media” rather than an “arsonist” one, claiming that allegedly biased news reports had caused “75 percent” of the political turmoil leading to the January 8 coup attempt.

In response, local journalists charged that the government was itself creating instability by bullying the press and keeping it underdeveloped through outdated laws that criminalize the practice of journalism.

In a separate incident, widespread xenophobia and anti-immigrant feelings are believed to have inspired the April 12 suspension of Solidarité Paalga, a bi-monthly catering to immigrants from Burkina Faso. The National Press Commission, which banned the paper for allegedly flouting regulations for the operation of print media, lifted the suspension order on May 3 following an active protest campaign by local journalists.

The second half of the year was quieter, as the government took steps to liberalize the state media. In June, officials announced the creation of an independent broadcasting authority (private radio stations were first licensed in 1990). In July, the government solicited private investment in the state-owned Fraternité Matin newspaper group.

The government also said that RTI would be streamlined to make it more competitive with private broadcasters and with the Voice of America, which in August obtained approval for an FM relay station in Abidjan.

Meanwhile, the Gbagbo administration released a number of political detainees and won back the favor of international lenders. In October, the government initiated reconciliation talks with opposition parties. The effort succeeded beyond expectations. RDR leader Ouattara and former president Henri Konan Bedie, who was toppled in a December 1999 military coup, returned home in late November and resumed political activities.

January 17

Muhamed Junior Ouattara, Agence France-Presse

Agence France-Presse (AFP) reporter Ouattara was arrested by four plainclothes police officers at the entrance of AFP’s office building in dowtown Abidjan, the capital of Côte d’Ivoire.

Police suspected Ouattara of involvement in a failed January 8 coup attempt that resulted in the deaths of several people, including two pro-government soldiers and a dozen rebels.

The officers roughed up several AFP journalists before handcuffing Ouattara and shoving him into an unmarked car. The award-winning reporter was then driven to the Abidjan offices of the police counter-espionage unit (DST) where he was interrogated about phone calls he received from a rebel leader on the night of the coup.

On 18 January, Ouattara’s lawyer was prevented from entering the DST building, in violation of Côte d’Ivoire’s criminal procedure code. AFP sources in Abidjan said the rebels had called the agency to air their grievances and later called Ouattara at his home to provide further insight into their motivation, which they expected the journalist to publish in an article.

Ouattara was released without charges on January 22. CPJ protested Ouattara’s detention in a February 15 letter to President Laurent Gbagbo.

February 10

Le Jour

As many as 30 armed men and three uniformed police officers broke into the printing press that produces the independent Abidjan daily Le Jour. As a police helicopter hovered over the factory, the intruders forced a security guard to lie prone while they searched the premises.

The intruders claimed to be law-enforcement officers acting on an anonymous tip, but they did not have a search warrant, Agence France-Presse reported.

After their 30-minute search failed to produce anything suspicious, the intruders accused Le Jour administrative director Biamari Coulibaly, who was not present at the time, of recruiting mercenaries and purchasing arms in preparation for a coup.

According to the paper’s editor, Abdoulaye Sangare, the men threatened to kill Coulibaly when they found him. They also claimed that pictures of Coulibaly had been circulated to police stations across the country.

CPJ protested the raid in a February 15 letter to President Laurent Gbagbo.

May 8

Meite Sindou, Le Patriote
Patrice Lénonhin, Le Patriote

Sindou and Lénonhin, editor and publisher, respectively, of the privately owned opposition daily Le Patriote, were convicted of criminal defamation and sentenced in absentia to a suspended three-month jail term and a US$150 fine each.

The sentences followed a complaint filed by Martin Bléou, head of Côte D’Ivoire’s leading human rights group, LIDHO, over a June 2000 report that Bléou had US$155,000 stashed in a Swiss bank account. Le Patriote alleged that the money was a payoff from the government of Henri Konan Bedie, who was overthrown in a military coup in December 1999.

Because the journalists were not present at the hearing, they heard of the decision through local papers, which are required by law to publicize any court ruling against the media.

April 12

Solidarité Paalga

The National Press Council (CNP) suspended the publication of Solidarité Paalga, a bimonthly that caters to immigrants from Burkina Faso. The CNP said the bimonthly violated Ivoirian press laws because its publisher was not Ivoirian, had ignored so-called legal deposit requirements, and employed unaccredited journalists.

The publisher, Nicolas Sahouidi, claimed that he identified himself as a citizen of Burkina Faso when he applied for a license to publish, and that the license was granted.

He also said that the paper had complied with the legal deposit requirements, which compel print publications to deposit three archival copies of each issue with the CNP.

Sahouidi admitted that no one on his staff was an accredited journalist. But he argued that under the local press law, an adaptation of France’s 1881 Press Code, a journalist is defined as any person who collects and distributes information and who draws their main source of income from this occupation.

The CNP lifted the suspension order on May 3, after its members met with Sahouidi.