In a climate of violence and political tension, journalists were frequently threatened, assaulted, and censored. The country has been divided since a 2002 uprising into a rebel-held north and government-held south. Some 10,000 French and United Nations peacekeepers oversee a fragile cease-fire. The rebels kept the press in their areas on a tight leash, but pro-government forces carried out the majority of the attacks on the media reported in 2005.
The “Young Patriots,” one of several militia groups that support President Laurent Gbagbo, attacked and harassed journalists in Abidjan, the country’s main commercial and administrative city, and home to most of its media outlets.
On July 24, the Young Patriots forced their way into the offices of state broadcaster Radiodiffusion Télévision Ivoirienne (RTI) after an unidentified armed group attacked and briefly held the town of Agboville, 45 miles (72 kilometers) from Abidjan. The Young Patriots demanded that RTI broadcast in full a speech by their leader, Charles Blé-Goudé, who blamed the rebels for the capture of the town. The rebels denied involvement. In his speech, Blé-Goudé called for a ban on pro-opposition newspapers. RTI management condemned the Young Patriots and requested government protection.
The next day, the Young Patriots disrupted the distribution of eight independent and pro-opposition daily newspapers around Abidjan and issued threats that forced some to evacuate their premises, according to local sources. The Young Patriots entered the distribution company Edipresse, where they destroyed hundreds of newspaper copies. A number of the targeted dailies received threats that their headquarters would be burned down and their staffs killed, according to CPJ sources. In November 2004, during a wave of anti-rebel and anti-French violence in the south, the Young Patriots had attacked some of the same dailies, torching their offices, looting, and destroying equipment as the staff fled for their lives.
On July 26, the Young Patriots savagely beat a journalist from one of the private papers as he prepared to cover an opposition press conference in Abidjan. Militia members disrupted the meeting and attacked opposition supporters, according to local news reports. Political reporter José Stéphane Koudou was beaten with iron bars and seriously injured, colleagues said. His assailants confiscated his press card, which showed he worked for the private daily Le Jour Plus. At the end of October, Le Jour Plus announced it was suspending publication to protest ongoing threats to its staff.
Not only has the government failed to curb the Young Patriots, but high-level officials have openly intimidated the press. At a meeting with local journalists in August, Gen. Philippe Mangou, the head of Ivory Coast’s armed forces, threatened to ban newspapers that failed to work “in the interests of the nation.” According to local and international news reports, Mangou warned journalists to be patriotic. “Otherwise,” he said, “we will have to assume our responsibilities and close those newspapers that continue to be apologists for violence and for the rebellion.”
Mangou also demanded a press blackout of statements by dissident army officers Mathias Doué and Jules Yao Yao, who had recently called for the removal of Gbagbo. At the same meeting, Republican Guard commander Dogbo Blé Brunot told journalists, “Ivory Coast is at war, and when a country is at war, even in so-called developed democracies, there is no freedom of the press.”
Government forces have also tried to set the agenda of the national broadcaster, RTI. At the end of July, a group of armed, uniformed soldiers stormed RTI’s Abidjan offices and instructed its directors not to broadcast footage of opposition members. In response, RTI’s general manager, Kébé Yacouba, announced that RTI would suspend coverage of all political parties, including the ruling Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI). RTI’s board lifted the suspension the following month, saying that the political climate had improved.
Under an April 2005 accord, the parties to Ivory Coast’s conflict agreed that RTI “must be used in favor of unity and national reconciliation.” This followed international condemnation of the role played by RTI in November 2004, when pro-government forces ousted Yacouba, took over the RTI broadcasting facility, and used radio and television to incite hostility toward foreigners and Ivoirian ethnic groups deemed sympathetic to the rebels.
A particular target was France, the former colonial power, which had destroyed much of the Ivoirian air force in retaliation for the bombing of French forces during government air raids on the northern rebel stronghold of Bouaké in early November. Following the broadcasts, deadly clashes erupted between demonstrators and French peacekeepers in Abidjan. The United Nations condemned the broadcasts, and the government subsequently reinstalled Yacouba and his management team.
Independent observers said that, under Yacouba, RTI’s programming was generally professional. However, international concern about xenophobia in the Ivoirian media continued.
In a report to the U.N. Security Council in September, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that “incitements to violence, exclusion and intolerance, and calls for a resumption of the armed conflict continued uninterrupted by the Ivorian media, in particular those associated with the ruling party.” The report added that, following massacres in the west of the country in June and the violent incidents in July, some media had also been targeting members of the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast.
Some pro-government politicians and media, such as the FPI daily Notre Voie, have also waged a campaign against France, which they accuse of supporting the rebels. France mediated the first peace agreement following the rebel uprising in 2002. It also sent troops to the country to help oversee the accord.
In mid-July, Ivoirian authorities shut down the FM broadcasts of Radio France Internationale (RFI). The National Council on Communication, an official regulatory body known by its French acronym, CNCA, accused RFI of biased reporting and of citing a U.N. report on civilian massacres that a U.N. mission spokesman later said did not exist. The CNCA ordered RFI to pay a fine of nine million CFA francs (US$16,577) and to broadcast a retraction of its reports “at least five times” once back on the air. RFI stood by its reporting.
RFI’s FM broadcasts had been cut off several times before during politically sensitive periods, according to CPJ research. For example, in November 2004, unidentified assailants crippled FM transmissions of international radio stations, including RFI, just before the government conducted air raids on rebel positions in the north.
The murder of RFI correspondent Jean Hélène by an Ivoirian police officer in October 2003 continued to cast a deep pall over journalists working in the country. In a rare instance of justice in an attack on a journalist, the officer was convicted and sentenced to 17 years in jail in early 2004, although no motive for the murder was given. The military court that tried the officer did not make public any finding on whether he acted alone or on the orders of others. Local and international human rights activists continued to protest the court’s finding of “mitigating circumstances” for Hélène’s killer.
The government also came under fire for its failure to solve the case of missing journalist Guy-André Kieffer. Kieffer, a freelance reporter of French and Canadian descent, disappeared from Abidjan in April 2004. At the end of October, Michel Legré, the only named suspect, was released provisionally. Legré, a businessman and brother-in-law of first lady Simone Gbagbo, was the last person known to have seen Kieffer alive. He was charged in 2004 by Ivoirian authorities as an accessory to kidnapping and murder. Kieffer’s body has never been found. A French judge investigating the case also charged Legré with complicity in the journalist’s abduction and confinement.