New York, November 28, 2011–The administration of Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara has detained without charge three journalists from an opposition newspaper since Thursday, in violation of the country’s own press law and constitution, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Public Prosecutor Simplice Kouadio ordered police to arrest Editor César Etou, copy editor Didier Dépry and political desk chief Boga Sivori of daily Notre Voie, a newspaper favorable to former leader Laurent Gbagbo, in connection with stories critical of the government that were published last week, according to news reports and local journalists. The three have been held without formal charge in a police station in the economic capital Abidjan beyond the 48-hour constitutional limit on pretrial detention, and in contravention of Ivory Coast’s 2004 press law, which bans detentions of journalists for press matters.
“President Alassane Ouattara took office with the promise to uphold democracy and the rule of law and break with Laurent Gbagbo’s intimidation tactics towards the press,” said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. “We call on the authorities to release immediately César Etou, Didier Dépry and Boga Sivori and end persecution of the media, which have a constitutional right to critically scrutinize the government.”
Judicial authorities interrogated Etou and Sivori on accusations of “offense to the head of state” over a November 21 story entitled “While Ivorians are dying of hunger and diseases, Ouattara buys 40 Mercedes worth 1.46 billion CFA francs [US$2.07 million],” defense lawyer Serge Essouo told CPJ. The article contrasted a November 17 report by Paris-based African business newsletter Lettre du Continent, about the government’s alleged acquisition of 40 Mercedes class E for members of the cabinet, with alleged shortcomings in fundamental social services for ordinary Ivorians.
Judicial authorities accused Dépry of “undermining the national economy,” with a November 24 story which criticized the government’s dismissive reaction to an earlier Notre Voie report suggesting a currency devaluation was imminent, Essouo told CPJ.
Commenting on the arrests Sunday, Ouattara called the allegations by Notre Voie “unacceptable lies,” and said justice should be allowed to run its course, private daily Le Nouveau Réveil reported. “I think that journalists, of course, can express their opinions, but one must relay facts,” he said.
“You know, I am for freedom of expression. Remember that it was under my term as prime minister that press and radio stations were liberalized,” Ouattara said, according to the report.
However, the government has not held to account the pro-Ouattara Republican Forces of the Ivory Coast (FRCI) fighters implicated in ransacking and occupying for five-months pro-Gbagbo media outlets such as Notre Voie, CPJ research shows. And authorities have made no arrests in two separate incidents involving FRCI fighters in which two radio journalists have lost their lives: the May 8 murder of radio journalist Sylvain Gagnetau Lago and the November 19 shooting death of Gilles Tutsi Murris Dabé.
In a press statement, the pro-Gbagbo party Ivory Popular Front (FPI) condemned the arrests.