New York, December 28, 1999 --- "Press freedom will be total," promised Gen. Robert Gue•, Cote d'Ivoire's new head of state. Gen. Gue•, 58, who overthrew the government of president Henri Konan Bédié on Christmas Eve, made this announcement just hours after his nine-man junta imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in this West African country, historically noted for its political stability.
However, the general warned local reporters against reporting "garbage," a practice that flourished, he claimed, under the Bédié regime. "We should not confuse press freedom, the fourth estate in any sound democracy, and irresponsible journalism," he said. Despite Gen. Gue•'s promise to respect press freedom, army officers detained two pro-Bédié reporters on December 27. The journalists were held for several hours without charge or explanation, and then released.
Meanwhile, many of Cote d'Ivoire's independent and pro-oppostion media, who were violently suppressed under President Bédié, greeted his ouster with enthusiasm. "The people of Cote d'Ivoire are now free," wrote Freedom Neruda, editor of the private daily Notre Voie, and winner of CPJ's 1997 Press Freedom Award.
According to Le Patriote, the country's best-selling daily, which backs the opposition Rally of Republicans party (RDR), the Christmas putsch was "the most important event in our history since independence." (Cote d'Ivoire gained independence from France in 1960.)
In effect, few Ivorians seemed to miss Bédié, who found sanctuary in Togo after the coup, or his xenophobic politics of "Ivoirité" (being a native-born Ivorian). Made law in December 1994 by a national assembly largely dominated by Bédié's conservative Democratic Party, Ivoirité raised tensions among Cote d'Ivoire's sixty-odd ethnic groups. It also heightened anti-immigrant feelings in a country where over thirty percent of the 19 million residents are foreign-born.
Bédié used Ivoirité against his chief political rival, RDR leader Allassane Dramane Ouattara, attempting to disqualify the 57 year-old economist, former prime minister, and former deputy director of the International Monetary Fund from running for president on the grounds that one of his parents came from neighboring Burkina Faso.
Local independent journalists were caught in the middle. Bédié, who was himself rumored to have at least one non-Ivorian parent, ordered the arrest of journalists, the seizure of publications, and the suspension of electronic media that supported Ouattara or criticized Bédié's divisive politics.
"It was almost impossible not to choose sides," said Meite Sindou, editor of Le Patriote. "Criticizing Ivoirité exposed you to state repression. Not saying anything about it could be seen as complicity with the Bédié camp. I told my reporters to feel free to support or reject [Ivoirité] while remaining loyal to our editorial line. It was not easy."
Media companies that covered the RDR sympathetically suffered attacks that ranged from phone threats to assassination attempts. On September 22, for example, publisher Abdoulaye Bakayoko of the RDR mouthpiece Le Liberal was gunned down near the Abidjan offices of the newspaper's parent company. A week later, Lama Fofana, manager of the pro-RDR daily Liberation, was fired at while driving to his newspaper office.
But popular demands for government accountability grew louder, and the tone of pro-opposition editorials sharpened. On September 17, an RDR rally against bias in the state-controlled media degenerated into a violent street brawl between police and RDR protesters, who ransacked the offices of the state-owned Fraternité-Matin . The attack apparently came in retaliation for the looting a week earlier of the offices of Liberation, whose night watchman was beaten to death in the incident.
Two months later, even the slavishly pro-Bédié Fraternité Matin had adapted to the new political climate. "Security For All: The Rule Of Law Restored," blared the December 27 front page, two days after the coup.
Yves Sorokobi, a journalist and citizen of Cote d'Ivoire, is Africa program researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists.