The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is disturbed by a series of recent attacks against journalists by security forces during recent mass opposition demonstrations in the Ivory Coast. While more than half a dozen Ivoirian journalists have reported being physically attacked by officials, many more were arrested, intimidated, and harassed while covering the protests.
On March 25, thousands of people marched in the streets of Abidjan in a demonstration organized by the political opposition to protest your alleged failure to fully implement the January 2003 Marcoussis peace agreement between the rebels and the government, by, among other things, devolving some presidential powers to other officials. The protests, which left at least 25 dead, were described by Your Excellency as an insurrection designed to "undermine the foundations of the state," Agence France-Presse reported.
During the protests, the following journalists and media workers were harassed by security forces:
- Dembélé Al Séni, Agbola Mesmer, Le Patriote. Al Séni and Mesmer, reporter and photographer, respectively, for the private pro-opposition daily Le Patriote, were attacked while covering the marches. Al Séni and Mesmer were arrested by police while they were observing the protests from a gas station shop, Al Séni said. After the two identified themselves as journalists, they were taken to the local police station where they were detained and severely beaten before being released. They were treated at a hospital, but neither has been able to return to work.
- Kady Sidibé, Le Patriote. Sidibé, photographer for Le Patriote, was arrested by members of the Republican Guard while covering the demonstration in Treichville, in southern Abidjan. She was beaten after identifying herself as a journalist and taken to a police station where, she said, she was accused of being a rebel and threatened with rape and death. She was detained for several hours before being released. According to Le Patriote's editor-in-chief, Sidibé's camera, which was confiscated by police, was not returned until this morning.
- Guira Safi, Soumahoro Vamara, Kone Malick, Le Libéral Nouveau. Safi, Vamara, and Malick, copy editor, driver, and webmaster, respectively for the private pro-opposition daily Le Libéral Nouveau were brutally attacked by gendarmes. The three were returning home from work when they were stopped at a roadblock and interrogated. When they said that they worked for Le Libéral Nouveau, the officers proceeded to beat them. Safi and Vamara were later taken to the hospital for treatment. They were released from the hospital on March 28, but none of them have been able to return to work.
- Habiba Dembélé, Dramé Lancine, TV2. Presidential guards at a roadblock stopped a car carrying Dembélé, a reporter for state-owned television station TV2, and Lancine, a TV2 cameraman. According to local sources, the guards had arrested several protesters and told the journalists to stop filming them. After the crew showed the guards their press cards, the guards threatened them with physical violence, saying that they knew where the journalists lived and would kill them. The guards confiscated Dembélé's notes, as well as the journalists' video camera and the keys to their car. Lancine was told to erase the footage from his videocassette. According to sources, an army officer who arrived on the scene told the guards to give back the journalists' notes, camera, and keys. The journalists were then released.
- Laurent Banga, Joseph Konan, TV2. Another TV2 team, consisting of journalist Banga and his cameraman, Konan, was arrested and brought to a police station, where they were detained for several hours before being released without charge.
In addition to attacks on individual journalists, several news outlets were censored during and after the demonstrations. Three foreign radio stations--Radio France Internationale (RFI), BBC and Africa No. 1--went off air in Abidjan around midday local time on March 25. Agence France-Presse quoted an RFI spokesperson as having said on March 25 that the transmitter cutoff was not due to technical reasons but was "probably deliberate," given the "tension" in the city.
Transmitters for these three radio stations are managed by one local company, SITEL, and are situated in the same building in the heart of the "Red Zone" surrounding the presidential palace, which government forces had declared off-limits on March 25. CPJ sources said that unidentified individuals forcefully disconnected the transmitters but had not stolen any equipment. Technicians were unable to access the area until yesterday, as it was still sealed off. Broadcasts resumed at around 1 p.m. local time today. No official explanation has been given, in spite of journalists' inquiries.
CPJ is deeply concerned about these attacks on journalists and the apparent censorship in Ivory Coast. Recent tensions between your Ivoirian Popular Front party and the political opposition, as well as violent clashes between supporters of the two sides, have created a dangerous working environment for the media. As an organization of journalists dedicated to defending our colleagues worldwide, we believe that governments ought to take measures to ensure that journalists can safely report on issues of public concern. It is especially disconcerting that security forces are now harassing and abusing journalists with impunity.
We call on you to instruct all security forces to cease attacking journalists immediately, to see that those who perpetrated the attacks during the demonstrations are brought to justice, and to ensure that journalists will be able to cover the news freely, without fear of reprisals. We also urge you to investigate why RFI, BBC, and Africa No.1 were taken off the air during and after the March 25 demonstrations.
We thank you for your attention in this urgent matter. We await your reply.