Attacks on the Press 2002: Ivory Coast

Hopes were high in July that Ivory Coast’s political crisis would end after a judge in the capital, Abidjan, confirmed that former prime minister Alassane Dramane Ouattara, the leader of the opposition Rally for Republicans (RDR), is an Ivory Coast citizen.

The controversy over Ouattara’s citizenship has been at the heart of the country’s ongoing unrest, which grew much worse in 1993, when then president Henri Konan Bédie sacked Ouattara as prime minister. Bédie concocted the concept of Ivoirite (“being a true Ivoirian”) in response to anxieties caused by mass immigration from neighboring countries. In early August, the RDR joined the unity government of the current president, Laurent Gbagbo, to consolidate the national reconciliation initiated by Gbagbo in late 2001. But on September 19, disgruntled soldiers from Ivory Coast’s Muslim north staged a mutiny. By year’s end, the insurgency, also described by state media as a botched coup attempt and a “terrorist” attack, had turned into an active rebellion, effectively splitting the country in two.

The rebels, known as the Ivory Coast Popular Movement (MPCI), have demands similar to those of Ouattara’s RDR, as well as the sympathy of the RDR’s base constituency of Muslims and other northerners. At first, the MPCI advanced rapidly toward the capital, Abidjan, which is in the predominantly Christian and animist south. But troops sent to the Ivory Coast from France to protect Western and French interests in
its former colony soon contained the rebels. The seeming collusion between the MPCI and the RDR, the only political party that did not condemn the rebellion, prompted state officials to accuse Ouattara, who later fled abroad, of attempting to destabilize the country. By December, the RDR leader was openly endorsing the MPCI’s demands and askingfor Gbagbo’s resignation.

A number of death squads also became active in the confusion, killing mostly pro-opposition figures. Meanwhile, law enforcement officials detained and beat journalists suspected of anti-government bias, and Gbagbo’s supporters destroyed the offices and equipment of pro-RDR news outlets.

CPJ and other international press freedom groups condemned the attacks on journalists, as did the Press Freedom and Media Ethics Observatory, the leading Ivoirian journalists’ organization, which pleaded with “all insurgents, all militants and all young people, whatever their political affiliation, to show tolerance toward journalists and media houses.” Communication Minister Sery Bailly also condemned the attacks, saying that “recourse to violence is retrogressive and reducing any organ or journalist to silence is a collective impoverishment.”

But with suspicions running wild, Ivoirian journalists soon became embroiled in the civil strife, with reports and opinions in the press increasingly carrying religiously intolerant and xenophobic arguments. In December, the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights Leagues said that it was collecting “evidence” likely to be used in international courts against the “Ivoirian hate media.” Foreign observers, journalists, and diplomats concurred that local media had greatly contributed to the spread of anti-foreigner and anti-immigrant feelings that, coupled with the dispute over Ouattara’s citizenship, had precipitated the explosion of deadly violence in this nation once noted for its political stability and economic success.

A large section of the pro-Gbagbo press corps has repeatedly accused foreign media of biased and insensitive reports that misrepresent the Ivory Coast, where an estimated 40 percent of the population is foreign-born. A September 22 editorial in the ruling Ivoirian Popular Front party daily, Notre Voie, for example, called the BBC, Radio-France Internationale (RFI), and Agence France-Presse “the other adversaries of the Ivory Coast” because they allegedly sympathize with the RDR and with the oppressed northern and Muslim people. That same day, the government jammed the broadcast signals of FM stations that relay programs from the BBC, RFI, and the Pan-African station Africa No 1. The head of the official National Audiovisual Committee, Jérome Diegou-Bailly, explained, “In a state of war, one must manage the information in order not to spread death and disruption among the population.”

Almost 1,000 people have been killed since the start of the rebellion. Ivoirian authorities have blamed the conflict on Burkina Faso and Liberia, from where two rebel groups launched December attacks on towns along Liberia’s border with the Ivory Coast. The French evening daily Le Monde first revealed credible information supporting the theory of foreign involvement in the Ivoirian crisis in an October 10 report accusing Burkina Faso of training and arming the rebels. Another French paper, the weekly Le Canard Enchaîné, later added that the rebels were partly financed by Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi, who then blamed the West for destabilizing the Ivory Coast “to exploit its riches.”

September 9

Le Patriot

The courtyard of the office building that houses two Abidjan dailies, Le Patriot and Tassouman, was raided by police.

That same day, Tassouman had published three articles reporting that bandits had robbed a vehicle belonging to Interior Minister Boga Doudou. Sources in the capital, Abidjan, said that after the paper appeared that morning, Tassouman received an anonymous call telling them the story was wrong. Shortly thereafter, the paper received a fax from Cabinet Director Alain Dogou inviting Tassouman editor Kone Satigui, as well as Généviève Kouassi and Beugré Mireille, the reporters who penned the stories, to his office for a meeting.

All three journalists went to Dogou’s office, where he castigated them for publishing the articles. The minister then told the journalists that the stolen car belonged to Clotilde Ohouochi, minister of solidarity, health, and social security, and not to the interior minister.

While Satigui, Kouassi, and Mireille were at the meeting, about eight police officers entered the courtyard of the papers’ building. The police asked journalists from both publications where the journalists responsible for the articles were. When the staff told the police that the reporters were out, the officers began beating the journalists. Though the police did not enter the offices of the two newspapers, they threw two canisters of tear gas into the courtyard before leaving.

Tassouman and Le Patriot, both owned by the same company, are aligned with the opposition Rally for Republicans and its leader, Alassane Dramane Ouattara. Sources said that the Interior Ministry later denied that it had ordered the police raid in reprisal for the articles and claimed instead that a group of unruly officers had acted without authority.

September 21

Mamadou Keita, Le Patriote

Keita, a reporter for the opposition daily Le Patriote, was attacked and severely injured by supporters of the ruling Ivoirian Popular Front (FPI) while covering an FPI rally. The journalist was later admitted to a hospital with wounds on his head and back.

October 11

Alain Amontchi, Reuters TV

Reuters cameraman Amontchi was attacked by demonstrators outside the French Embassy in the capital, Abidjan, where he was covering a spontaneous rally of thousands of youth demanding that French officials hand over opposition leader Alassane Dramane Ouattara, whom soldiers had accused of mounting a bloody military uprising that broke out on September 19. Ouattara later left the Ivory Coast. The demonstrators heckled Amontchi, yelled slurs against the presence of foreign media in the country, and later damaged his recording gear. He suffered no serious injuries.

October 16

Le Patriote
Abidjan Magazine

A group of about 50 people looted and ransacked the offices of the private Mayama Media Group, publisher of three Ivory Coast pro-opposition newspapers, said several sources in the capital, Abidjan. The mob smashed computers and other equipment and damaged printing presses while chanting pro-government slogans. The newsrooms of Le Patriote and Tassouman, both daily newspapers, and the weekly Abidjan Magazine were destroyed. All three are close to the opposition Rally for Republicans, a party led by former prime minister Alassane Dramane Ouattara, whom some state officials suspect may be behind a bloody military uprising that began on September 19 in the northern part of the country.

No one was hurt in the attack since the news staff of the three papers–long accused by the government of working to destabilize the country with biased reporting–have been working from home since the crisis started. The military standoff has pitted a group of disgruntled soldiers from Ivory Coast’s Muslim north against troops loyal to the government, which is mostly staffed by southern Christians.

October 17

Radio Nostalgie

The newsroom of the popular private broadcaster Radio Nostalgie, located in the business district of the capital, Abidjan, was raided by 20 armed men dressed in fatigues. The attackers scared off the station’s security personnel and destroyed surveillance cameras before smashing computers and broadcast equipment. According to news reports, Radio Nostalgie owner, Hamed Bakayoko, estimated the losses at more than 200 million CFA francs (US$296,000).

The station had abruptly stopped airing news programs on the morning of September 19, when a bloody military uprising erupted in the northern part of the country. Some state officials have accused station owner Bakayoko, as well as leaders of the opposition Rally for Republicans (RDR), of which he is an outspoken member, of masterminding the rebellion. Bakayoko also holds controlling stakes in the private Mayama Media Group, which publishes three pro-RDR newspapers.
Gaël Mocaer, Radio France Outremer

Mocaer, an independent French filmmaker who was on assignment for the television division of the publicly funded French broadcaster Radio France Outremer, was detained by Ivoirian counterintelligence services when he arrived in the capital, Abidjan. Authorities did not explain why they arrested the journalist, who was in Abidjan to shoot a feature story on the bloody military crisis that erupted in the country on September 19. Mocaer was released without charge on the afternoon of October 23 and immediately left the country. When contacted by CPJ, the journalist declined to comment on the incident.