Ivorian editor abruptly jailed in libel case

New York, March 20, 2009–Ivorian authorities on Thursday abruptly jailed a journalist who was scheduled to appear in court next week on libel charges related to a column critical of the government, according to local journalists and press reports. The imprisonment appeared to violate the 2004 Ivorian press law, which decriminalized press offenses and banned pretrial detention of journalists.

Nanankoua Gnamantêh, op-ed editor of the pro-opposition private weekly Le Repère, was taken into custody after being summoned by State Prosecutor Raymond Tchimou for questioning, according to local journalists. He was immediately transferred to the notorious main MACA prison in the commercial city of Abidjan. The prison already holds French freelance journalist Jean-Paul Ney on charges of “disturbing public order” and “failing to denounce actions likely to undermine national defense,” according to CPJ research.

“We are alarmed that Nanankoua Gnamantêh was summarily sent to prison while awaiting trial. We question the legality of his imprisonment, which constitutes a step backward for press freedom in Ivory Coast,” said CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, Tom Rhodes.

Two days before his detention, Gnamantêh had been charged with offending the head of state and ordered to court next Tuesday, according to Denis Kah Zion, general manager of Le Réveil, the newspaper’s parent company. The charge related to a front page column headlined “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” with a photo of President Laurent Gbagbo in the center and photos of former members of his government who have been imprisoned in recent corruption scandals, according to CPJ research. An arrow identified Gbagbo as “Ali Baba.”

Eugène Dié Kacou, president of the official media regulator, the National Press Council, told CPJ the council had formally censured the paper on grounds that it “insulted” the president. However, he noted that the 2004 press law banned pretrial detention and that the charge, while carrying a potential a fine of 3 million CFA francs (US$6,300), was not punishable by imprisonment. Kacou said Gnamantêh fulfills all of the legal requirements of a professional journalist.

Gnamantêh was the second Ivorian journalist detained in connection with his work in recent months, according to CPJ research. In December, police in Abidjan detained for four days without charge online editor Ebenezer Viwami of the Internet-based news agency Alerte Info. Viwami was picked up while covering a riot at MACA prison. Agence France-Presse quoted the Ivorian interior and justice ministries as saying that Viwami was accused of falsely reporting fatalities in the riot.