Attacks on the Press 2004: Ivory Coast

Ivory Coast

Although legislation passed at the end of 2004 eliminated criminal penalties for most press offenses, journalists in Ivory Coast face much more immediate and dangerous threats, including harassment and violence, amid the political tension and uncertainty that have engulfed the country since civil war began in 2002. Serious attacks on the press have occurred in both the government-controlled south and the rebel-held north.

The country remained divided in 2004, with French and U.N. peacekeepers trying to enforce a stalled 2003 peace deal signed by the government, rebels, and the political opposition. Tension came to a head when the government of President Laurent Gbagbo launched air strikes on rebel positions in the north on November 4, breaking a cease-fire that had been in force since 2003. One of the raids hit a French military camp, killing nine French soldiers and a U.S. aid worker. France, the former colonial ruler of Ivory Coast, retaliated by destroying most of the small Ivoirian air force. Several days of anti-French violence and riots ensued, whipped up by state-owned media. The United Nations imposed an arms embargo on the country, with the threat of further sanctions to follow. At year’s end, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa was continuing to mediate between the government and rebels on behalf of the African Union.

Journalist Antoine Massé, a correspondent for the private daily Le Courrier d’Abidjan (The Abidjan Post), was fatally shot on November 7 while covering violent clashes between French troops and demonstrators in the western Ivoirian town of Duékoué. Le Courrier d’Abidjan Editor Théophile Kouamouo claimed that French troops opened fire during the clash. French military officials did not comment directly on Massé’s death, although Gen. Henri Bentegeat acknowledged that his soldiers had opened fire in certain cases to hold back violent mobs, The Associated Press reported.

The November air raids were accompanied by an unprecedented wave of attacks on the independent and pro-opposition press in the commercial capital, Abidjan. Unidentified assailants sabotaged the FM transmitters of international radio services Radio France Internationale (RFI), the BBC, and Africa No. 1, knocking them off the air in Abidjan. The government forced out the head of state radio and television and replaced him with a hard-line supporter. Pro-government militias attacked the private dailies Le Patriote (The Patriot), 24 Heures (24 Hours), Le Nouveau Réveil (The New Awakening), and Le Libéral Nouveau (The New Liberal), looting and destroying equipment and documents. They set fire to the offices of Le Patriote, 24 Heures, and Le Libéral Nouveau, which were badly damaged and unable to publish as a result. The government also banned the distribution of nine private newspapers, including the four that had been attacked. They did not return to newsstands until early December.

After the state broadcaster’s management was replaced, national radio and television began broadcasting xenophobic, anti-French and antirebel propaganda. They also called on the population to take to the streets and rise up against the French. Tens of thousands of people responded, days of violence and looting ensued, and thousands of foreigners were evacuated. The “hate” broadcasts stopped only after Juan Mendez, the U.N. adviser on preventing genocide, warned that the situation could be referred to the International Criminal Court.

In January, a military court in Abidjan sentenced Ivoirian police officer Théodore Séry Dago to 17 years in prison for the murder of RFI correspondent Jean Hélène, who was shot in the head by Séry Dago in 2003. It is still not known whether Séry Dago acted alone, or what motivated the murder, although RFI lawyer Olivier Desandre has accused the Ivoirian media of encouraging anti-French feelings in its coverage of the civil war.

In July, RFI decided to close its Abidjan office because of the lack of security. Most international news agencies had already relocated to neighboring countries in 2003. In August 2004, however, the United Nations launched a radio station in Ivory Coast as part of its peacekeeping operation. The station planned to cover the whole country and broadcast in both French and local languages. Human rights groups and independent observers hoped it would help to counteract divisive propaganda in the local media.

Pressure from France is widely seen as having helped ensure a speedy trial of Hélène’s murderer. A French investigation also raised pressure on Ivoirian authorities over the April 16 disappearance from Abidjan of Guy-Andé Kieffer, a freelance journalist of dual French and Canadian nationality who was also a business consultant in Ivory Coast’s lucrative cocoa and coffee sectors. Kieffer had conducted numerous investigations into these sectors, some of which exposed corruption. He had also -contributed to the Paris-based African business newsletter Lettre du Continent (Letter from the Continent). Kieffer’s family and friends said he received death threats before he disappeared.

At the end of May, Ivoirian authorities detained Michel Legré, a brother-in-law of Ivory Coast’s first lady, and charged him with being an accessory to Kieffer’s kidnapping and murder, although Kieffer’s body had not been found. Legré was the last person known to have seen Kieffer alive, according to local and international press reports. In testimony before a French judge, he accused several senior officials in Gbagbo’s administration of involvement in Kieffer’s disappearance. The French judicial inquiry came after Kieffer’s wife filed a complaint in a Paris court. France and Ivory Coast have a bilateral treaty on judicial cooperation dating back to Ivoirian independence in 1960.

Attacks on Ivoirian journalists are mostly carried out with total impunity. In March, government security forces systematically targeted journalists covering opposition demonstrations. Many journalists reported being harassed, arrested, beaten, and threatened, including one female journalist who was threatened with rape and death.

Serious press freedom violations have also occurred in the rebel-held north. Abidjan-based newspapers are not widely distributed there because of security problems, while rebels censor national TV and radio broadcasts, according to the National Union of Ivoirian Journalists.

Amadou Dagnogo, who was a correspondent for the independent daily L’Inter in the rebel-held town of Bouake, disappeared for almost two months after telling his editor that he had received threats from rebels. When he reappeared in late October, he told CPJ he had been forced into a vehicle on August 22 by supporters of Guillaume Soro, leader of the Forces Nouvelles rebel movement, which controls Bouake. Soro was also communications minister in the power-sharing government, though he was temporarily suspended at year’s end. Dagnogo’s captors beat and tortured him, saying they did not like his articles, according to the journalist.

Dagnogo had written about a split in the rebel movement and alleged atrocities committed by Soro’s men. In June, fighting broke out between Soro’s forces and fighters loyal to rival rebel commander Ibrahim Coulibaly, popularly known as Ib. Some local sources say L’Inter is seen as sympathetic to Coulibaly and frequently publishes stories from his Web site.

In April, Gaston Bony, a radio presenter and editor of the weekly newspaper Le Venin (Poison), was sentenced to six months in prison after he was accused of defamation by the mayor in Agboville, a town north of Abidjan. The charges were linked to articles he had written in his newspaper accusing the mayor of corruption. Bony’s health deteriorated in jail, and he was granted a provisional release after serving four months. He was considered to have served his sentence and does not risk being sent back to jail, his lawyer told CPJ at year’s end. This was the first time since Gbagbo came to power in 2000 that a journalist was convicted and jailed for his work in Ivory Coast.

In December, Parliament passed a new law removing criminal penalties for press offenses such as defamation and publishing false information, replacing them with stiff fines. Courts will also have the option to suspend publications temporarily. The law also requires newspaper publishers to be backed by a company and to meet conditions laid out in the collective labor agreement for the press sector. In addition, the legislation seeks to strengthen the structure and powers of existing regulatory bodies, as does another new law on the broadcast sector. Journalism organizations hope that these laws will help raise professional standards.