Attacks on the Press 2003: Ivory Coast

The brutal murder of a French journalist in the Ivory Coast in October highlighted the lack of security in the country in 2003. The killing came after the collapse of the government of national reconciliation in September, when rebels walked out and accused President Laurent Gbagbo of refusing to fully implement the peace process. Despite a peace accord signed in France in January, the country remained divided at year’s end into a mainly Muslim, rebel-held north and a mostly Christian and animist government-held south, with French and West African peacekeepers sandwiched in the middle.

On July 4, 2003, the former rebels, now known as the New Forces, and the army jointly declared the end of the war. However, good will faded as the August deadline for disarmament came and went, while the New Forces accused Gbagbo of blocking reforms. In late September, former rebels in the government withdrew to their central stronghold of Bouake, denouncing the national reconciliation government as a sham. Gbagbo in turn accused the rebels of sabotaging the peace process by refusing to disarm.

On October 21, Radio France Internationale’s (RFI) West Africa correspondent Jean Hélène was shot in the head by a police officer in the capital, Abidjan, while the jour-nalist waited outside national police headquarters for the release of 11 opposition supporters who had been detained on suspicion of plotting to kill top government officials. Hélène, 50, was an experienced journalist who had reported on many wars in Africa. On January 22, 2004, a military court in Abidjan sentenced Ivoirian police officer Sgt. Théodore Séry Dago to 17 years in prison. Séry Dago was also fined 500,000 CFA francs (US$960), stripped of his rank in the national police, and barred from voting or leaving his home for 10 years.

After Hélène’s family, RFI, and the French press freedom group Reporters Without Borders applied in France to become civil parties in the case, a French public prosecutor began conducting an investigation into the murder. Under French law, French authorities have jurisdiction in the case because the victim was French. Although the French and Ivoirian inquiries are legally separate, officials have been cooperating. France and Ivory Coast have a bilateral treaty on judicial cooperation dating back to Ivoirian independence.

Although the motive for Hélène’s murder is unclear, many observers linked it to the prevailing hostility against the French presence in Ivory Coast, and against the French and foreign press there. Gbagbo’s ruling Ivoirian Popular Front (FPI) party has frequently accused France of backing the rebellion, which erupted into civil war in September 2002, even though many believe that the 3,800 French troops and 1,000 West African troops overseeing the cease-fire line between north and south have prevented the rebels from penetrating into government-held territory. Experts say there is no evidence to support the accusations that France has been backing the rebellion.

Days after Hélène’s killing, newspaper vendors staged a national strike to protest repeated attacks by pro-Gbagbo youth in Abidjan and throughout the southwest. “They come along in plain clothes and ask for opposition papers. If we give them a copy, they rip up all our newspapers and threaten to beat us up,” complained one vendor. Pro-government youth militia, known as the Young Patriots, have accused opposition newspapers, such as Le Patriote, Le Nouveau Réveil, and Le Front, of publishing pro-rebel propaganda.

Despite the reconciliation process, most Ivoirian media remain partisan and provocative. In fact, human rights groups, foreign journalists, and diplomats have characterized some of the commentary as “incitement to violence.” One of the most blatant examples was an announcement on the state broadcaster Radio Télévision Ivoire in late 2002 calling on Ivoirians to denounce “suspicious neighbors” by reporting them to the police. This resulted in attacks on immigrants and disappearances. The communications minister, former rebel leader Guillaume Soro, attempted to introduce a number of reforms aimed at promoting a more “balanced press,” including workshops to teach local journalists the importance of unbiased reporting and warn them against allowing Ivory Coast to become “another Rwanda,” where some media outlets actively encouraged the 1994 genocide.

In November, Le Patriote, which is close to the Rally of the Republicans party of exiled opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, denounced a three-month government ban on demonstrations under the headline, “Gbagbo, the Black Hitler.” Papers close to Gbagbo are also extreme and have accused France and international journalists of being close to the rebellion. While most of the dailies, including the state-run newspaper Fraternité Matin, carried a black page to commemorate Hélène’s death, some were less sympathetic. Notre Voie, the newspaper of the ruling FPI, launched a campaign to defend Hélène’s killer, saying that the journalist had provoked him, and that it may have been an accident. Some papers speculated that the French media provoked the murder by showing bias in favor of the rebels. There is no clear evidence of any bias in the French media, although French news coverage of the Ivoirian conflict remained a sensitive issue in France as well as Ivory Coast.

After Hélène’s murder, foreign correspondents in Abidjan asked for a meeting with Gbagbo to find out what guarantees he could offer for journalists’ security. The president said that although he was shocked by Hélène’s death, he was equally shocked by the way the foreign press had “gone crazy” in its reporting on Ivory Coast. He insisted that he would never expel or imprison a journalist but suggested that correspondents show more self-restraint. The president was particularly outraged at a January article headlined “Gbagbo’s Death Squads” in the French newspaper Le Monde that covered a U.N. report linking killings in Abidjan to a tribal militia close to Gbagbo’s wife. Gbagbo was also angered by a cartoon in the paper that showed the United Nations fighting Saddam Hussein on one side and Gbagbo on the other.

West Africa bureaus of foreign news agencies have for many years been based in Abidjan, but most had pulled out by the end of 2003. The Associated Press moved its offices to Dakar, Senegal, in August 2002, and The New York Times correspondent followed suit in 2003. Reuters also relocated to Dakar in November 2003. The BBC will move its regional office to Accra, Ghana, in 2004. RFI will no longer have a permanent correspondent in Abidjan and advised its freelance reporter to leave. Agence France-Presse had not decided by year’s end whether it would leave Ivory Coast.

Hélène was the second journalist killed in Ivory Coast in 2003. The body of Ivoirian journalist Kloueu Gonzreu, 51, who worked for the state-owned Ivoirian Press Agency (AIP), was found in March near the western town of Toulépleu, bordering Liberia, by a team from the Red Cross, for which he also worked. His body was found along with those of his 19-year-old son and two other local Red Cross volunteers. The victims reportedly disappeared on January 11. Local journalists told CPJ at the time that they believed Gonzreu had been kidnapped and killed by Liberian mercenaries fighting for the Ivoirian government, and that his death could have been linked to his work as a journalist. On January 30, the pro-government newspaper Notre Pays accused him of “voicing sympathy with the rebellion.” However, the circumstances of his death remain murky, and some have also raised the possibility that he was killed in crossfire during an upsurge of fighting in early 2003 between government and rebel forces. Because Toulépleu is remote with no government authority ruling it, no inquiry has been conducted.

In January, security forces in the southwestern port city of San Pedro arrested French journalist Anne Boher of Reuters after rebels announced that they would try to take the town. Though Boher primarily reported on Ivory Coast’s cocoa industry, she was accused of being a spy because she had the names and numbers of opposition members and rebels in her contact book. She was released 24 hours later in Abidjan. Boher had previously received death threats, and Reuters moved her to another country.

Attempts were under way toward the end of 2003 to salvage the peace process. In December, following a series of meetings, both sides agreed to a series of confidence-building measures, including withdrawing heavy weapons from the front lines. In early January 2004, rebel ministers returned to Abidjan, ending their boycott of the transition government, while an advance party of French peacekeeping troops began deploying in the rebel-held north.