Ivorian trio charged; ailing reporter on hunger strike

New York, July 16, 2010—Three journalists were formally charged today after refusing to reveal to Ivory Coast’s state prosecutor their sources for a corruption story based on a document leaked from the prosecutor’s office. The journalists could face up to 10 years in prison.

Managing Editor Stéphane Guédé, News Editor Théophile Kouamouo, and Editor-in-Chief Saint-Claver Oula of the daily Le Nouveau Courrier were charged with “theft of administrative documents,” defense lawyer Désiré Gueu told CPJ. The three are expected to be transferred from police custody to a prison in the commercial city of Abidjan pending trial, he said.

The case stems from a Le Nouveau Courrier story, published Tuesday, detailing the results of investigations by State Prosecutor Raymond Tchimou into corruption in the country’s coffee and cocoa export trade. The story, based on the prosecutor’s confidential report, detailed allegations of systematic embezzlement and over-billing. Tchimou charged the journalists under the criminal code and not Ivory Coast’s 2004 press law, which does not include prison penalties.

The health of Oula, who had been suffering from a stomach ailment at the time of the arrest, has deteriorated, according to Gueu. Police took Oula, who is also a local correspondent for the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Voice of America, to a local clinic on Thursday, but denied a doctor’s request to hospitalize the journalist. In protest, Oula began a hunger strike and has refused medication.

“By charging Stéphane Guédé, Théophile Kouamouo, and Saint-Claver Oula with theft, the Ivorian state prosecutor is criminalizing investigative journalism,” said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita.  “We hold Ivorian authorities responsible for the well-being of Oula and we call on the criminal court to dismiss these charges and release our colleagues immediately.”

Guillaume Gbato, a spokesman for a coalition of local professional journalists associations, said all newspapers in Ivory Coast will be asked to republish Le Nouveau Courrier’s story on Monday as a sign of solidarity.