The news media were caught in the middle of political tensions that have split the country between a government-ruled south and a rebel-held north since 2002. In the south and west, militant groups harassed, intimidated, and attacked media outlets as a U.N.-backed power-sharing government installed at the end of 2005 failed to bring much progress on disarmament. Elections were postponed for the second time in two years, and the aftermath of a deadly toxic waste dumping scandal fueled a public row between interim Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny and President Laurent Gbagbo.
On January 18, hundreds of Young Patriots, the radical militia supporting President Laurent Gbagbo, seized control of the state television and radio broadcaster Radiodiffusion Télévision Ivoirienne (RTI), using it to broadcast calls for protests against the French and U.N. presence in the country. They had besieged RTI’s offices in Abidjan, the commercial capital, for two days before gaining access without any apparent resistance from government security forces guarding the premises.
This came amid a wave of demonstrations after international mediators recommended the dissolution of parliament, whose mandate had expired. Gbagbo’s party, Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI), temporarily withdrew from the transitional government in protest and called for the departure of U.N. and French peacekeepers monitoring the country’s fragile peace.
The Young Patriots broadcast messages over RTI directing protesters to specific targets for demonstrations, including the RTI offices, U.N. headquarters, and the French embassy in Abidjan. Large crowds formed at each site. RTI was not able to resume its normal operations until the following day, after Young Patriots leader Charles Blé-Goudé called off the demonstrations.
The Young Patriots also ransacked Radio Tchrato, a community radio station in the central town of Daloa, and forced it off the air after journalists at the station refused to broadcast the militia’s messages.
Legal moves were also used to intimidate journalists. In June, an Abidjan court sentenced Editor Honoré Sépé and Publication Director Fatoumata Coulibaly of the opposition daily Le Front to three months in jail for publishing an allegedly false document; the court also ordered the paper to pay large fines for allegedly defaming both Blé-Goudé and Henri Amouzou, president of a cocoa and coffee producers association. Although the journalists remained free on appeal, the sentence appeared to contradict a December 2004 press law that was supposed to eliminate prison terms for press offenses.
The two journalists were sentenced in connection with a February 21 article in Le Front alleging that Blé-Goudé had received the equivalent of US$500,000 to stage a demonstration outside the French embassy in January. To back its claim, the newspaper published a copy of a purported letter from Amouzou to Blé-Goudé. A suit from Amouzou ensued.
In September, three journalists of a pro-opposition private daily were detained overnight in connection with an article alleging that First Lady Simone Gbagbo and two public officials hastily formed a front company to dump deadly toxic waste in Abidjan in mid-August. A week later, an Abidjan court fined Coulibaly Seydou, Edouard Gonto, and Frédéric Koffi of Le Jour Plus 15 million CFA francs (US$29,000) for “contempt of the head of state.” At least 10 people died after inhaling fumes from the waste.
Fallout from the toxic waste scandal continued in November, when President Gbagbo fired management of RTI and the state-owned newspaper Fraternité Matin. RTI had aired a statement from the prime minister’s office criticizing Gbagbo’s decision to reinstate public officials implicated in the affair. Fraternité Matin was said to have “erroneously reported” a meeting between the president and prime minister. The sackings highlighted a growing rift between Gbagbo and Banny after the U.N. Security Council extended their mandates for an additional year.
There was continuing international concern about inflammatory reporting by some media outlets. In a report to the U.N. Security Council in April, Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated that “sections of the Ivoirian media actively participated in propagating calls to violence and stirring up hatred” against the United Nations, international mediators, France, and selected local groups during unrest in January. He did not cite any specific outlets.
The FPI daily Notre Voie continued to launch virulent attacks, particularly on the former colonial power France. On January 5, it ran an article claiming that France was preparing to create chaos in Ivory Coast, and it accused Radio France Internationale (RFI) of being a propaganda arm of the French government.
RFI’s FM broadcasts were allowed back on the air in May, after a 10-month ban by the state-run National Council on Audiovisual Communication (CNCA), a media regulatory agency. The CNCA had banned RFI in July 2005, accusing it of biased and unethical reporting. An RFI source confirmed media reports that the broadcaster had agreed to pay 9 million CFA francs (US$17,200) to Ivoirian authorities, but the source denied that it was a fine and said that RFI stood by its reporting. RFI also agreed to recruit a local correspondent in Abidjan. The broadcaster’s Abidjan bureau had been closed since its last correspondent, Jean Hélène, was killed by an Ivoirian police officer in October 2003.
Franco-Ivoirian relations remained tense over the French-led investigation into the April 2004 disappearance of French and Canadian freelance journalist Guy-André Kieffer. Kieffer was investigating corruption in the lucrative cocoa sector when he disappeared from an Abidjan parking lot.
In January, French authorities arrested a new suspect, former Ivoirian army officer Jean-Tony Oulaï, as he arrived in Paris. News reports said Oulaï was suspected of leading a commando unit that kidnapped and killed Kieffer, but Oulaï denied any involvement. He was released in February but remained under investigation in France.
Shortly after Kieffer’s disappearance, Ivoirian authorities arrested Michel Legré, an in-law of First Lady Simone Gbagbo, and charged him as an accessory to kidnapping and murder. But authorities released Legré in October 2005 and have not responded to a request from French investigating magistrate Patrick Ramaël that he be allowed to question the suspect in France. Legré was the last person known to have seen Kieffer.
Ramaël reportedly compiled a list of 17 suspects after an August visit to Abidjan during which a number of Ivoirian informants came forward. Agence France-Presse quoted Bernard Kieffer, the missing journalist’s brother, who accompanied Ramaël to Abidjan, as saying that five of the suspects were active members of the Ivoirian army but that Ramaël had not been allowed to question them. Judicial secrecy rules bar Ramaël from speaking to the press. Ivoirian authorities have denied any government involvement in Kieffer’s disappearance.