Stories critical of president trigger charges

New York, February 28, 2007—Stories critical of President Laurent Gbagbo led authorities this week to charge four journalists working for two private newspapers in the commercial capital, Abidjan, with offending the head of state, according to news reports and local journalists.

“We are concerned by this apparent crackdown on critical reporting,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on the authorities to drop these charges and allow our colleagues to carry out their duties of holding the government to account in a democratic society.”

Police summoned Director Denis Kah Zion and reporter André Silver Konan of the private daily Le Nouveau Réveil on Tuesday, questioned them over five hours, and jailed them for six hours in connection with a February 21 article headlined, “The 7-Year Record of the FPI Party: The One Hundred Crimes of Gbagbo,” Zion told CPJ. The story recounted alleged political assassinations and scandals during Gbagbo’s rule, he said.

The two were jailed after Zion, who also leads an association of young journalists, refused to issue a public apology, he told CPJ. They were provisionally released after supporters organized a rally in front of the police station, he said. They are scheduled to appear before the state prosecutor on Friday.

A February 23 story in the private daily L’Inter led police to question director Jean-Marie Ahoussou and reporter Hyppolite Oulaï for nearly two hours today before filing charges, according to Ahoussou. They were freed pending a court appearance on Friday.

L’Inter’s story, reprinted from a Paris publication, alleged that a Dutch company at the center of a 2006 toxic waste scandal had agreed to cover repairs to the presidential Fokker-100 plane. The repairs were said to cost as much as 5 billion CFA francs (US$10 million).

The company, Trafigura, had announced 10 days earlier that it would pay a 100 billion CFA franc (US$200 million) settlement to Ivory Coast for the deaths of at least 10 people from exposure to waste dumped from a company-chartered ship, according to international news reports. The company said the settlement did not constitute an acknowledgment of liability; plane repairs were not mentioned in the publicly disclosed settlement

Ahoussou denied any intent to offend Gbagbo, saying the story was first published the Paris business newsletter La Lettre du Continent, he told CPJ. Neither Gbagbo nor Trafigura has responded to the allegation that the settlement involved plane repairs.

At least four other Ivoirian journalists have been detained in recent months because of critical articles, according to CPJ research. On January 25, Soir Info reporter Claude Dassé was held incommunicado for five days over a story critical of the state prosecutor. In September 2006, three journalists with the private daily Le Jour Plus 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 toxic waste in Abidjan in mid-August.