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No Return for Ivory Coast Journalists

The treatment of Ivory Coast journalists perceived as pro-Gbagbo reflects a lack of press freedom in Alassane Ouattara's Ivory Coast.
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Journalists at pro-Gbagbo paper, Le Nouveau Courrier.

Accra, Ghana:

Claude Frank About taps his fingers when he's nervous. They're like print heads on a telegraph machine, beating out a code of unease on the table of a ritzy, seaside hotel in Ghana’s capital city.

Since May, the slim and suited About has been in exile from neighbouring Ivory Coast, where he was a journalist for state broadcaster Radiodiffusion Télévision Ivoirienne (RTI). He came not long after ex-president and current International Criminal Court detainee Laurent Gbagbo was arrested, bringing to an end months of post-election violence that caused 3,000 deaths and saw human rights abuses committed both by Gbagbo’s supporters and those of current president Alassane Ouattara.

“For many months, I have no salary,” he says. “My accounts are frozen. I have no income. But I thank God because I have my life. And here I live from the generosity of my friends.”

No return

If he goes home, he says, he could wind up in prison - or beaten in the streets, like other pro-Gbagbo journalists have reportedly been. He is one of many figures caught up in a complicated story about free speech, propaganda, repression of the press, and a brutal civil war.

Together with colleagues Hermann Aboa and Awa Ehoura, About moderated a current affairs program called Raison D’Etat, which was launched after the November 2010 elections sent the country back into a crisis simmering since the end of the civil war. About frames the show as enterprising journalism. Others say it was a platform for pro-Gbagbo hate speech that provoked extreme violence in the streets of Abidjan, as well as around the country.

While Ehoura stayed in Ivory Coast, Aboa and About joined thousands who fled to Ghana, many ending up in refugee camps, while others – an elite core of business people, journalists, former politicians, and relatives of Gbagbo – have managed to settle in urban centres, even as many face arrest warrants issued from Abidjan.

About says he will not go back. Aboa returned in July, about two months after the Ouattara government promised amnesty to journalists in an interview with the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ). While trying to unblock his accounts, he was arrested and charged with six state crimes, including funding militias and selling weapons on behalf of Gbagbo. He has been in pre-trial custody ever since, only seeing a judge briefly on November 21. There has been no date set for his trial. Other pro-Gbagbo journalists are locked up facing similar charges.

The guests, not the journalists

“Obviously, it’s a little bit delicate,” says Ambroise Pierre, who works the Africa desk of Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RWB). “Our position is that Raison D’Etat was a show. Raison D’Etat was a program on TV, so it was hosted by journalists working for RTI, and RTI was well known at the end of Laurent Gbagbo’s regime for supporting Laurent Gbagbo and his party. But it was still just a show. During the post-election crisis, Raison D’Etat received guests who were really tough in supporting the line. The things that went wrong were because of the guests. It was more because of the guests than the journalists.”

Pierre says Aboa should be charged under Ivory Coast’s 2004 press law, which prohibits the incarceration of journalists. The Ivorian Committee to Protect Journalists (ICPJ) has the same view. CPJ has called for him to be immediately released, with all charges dropped.

When Aboa was first arrested, a correspondent from RWB was able to visit him. The organization also gave his family 800 Euros. But Aboa was transferred to the Maison D’arrêt et correction d’Abidjan, and the group lost access. According to Pierre, Aboa is still able to see his lawyer and family.

“We left because they wanted to kill us,” says About. “He got one suggestion (to go back) and I told him it was not the time. And he went, and for sure they put him in prison.”

Conflicting stories

Yô Claude is another exiled RTI journalist living in Ghana. He has been excoriated for his coverage of the March 3 killings of seven female demonstrators in the Abidjan suburb of Abobo. Claude filed a report saying the victims were actors, and the whole scene was staged, with crushed tomatoes used to simulate blood.

“When reporting, you see the truth,” he says. “I’m not stupid. I’m not a manipulator. I’m a dignified and proud man. I respect journalism. When you see somebody lying in a photo and then he rises and then somebody tells him, ‘Lay down, lay down,’ the person is not dead.”

That version of events has been fundamentally rejected by international observers like Human Rights Watch (HRW).

"We interviewed a number of people present, in addition to doctors who treated victims, who clearly described the fatal wounds suffered by the seven women demonstrators,” says Matt Wells, West Africa researcher with HRW. “A doctor described seeing one woman whose head was decapitated by heavy weapon fire. The attack was one of the crisis' most outrageous events."

The Western agenda reality

These competing versions are part of a battle for reality in Ivory Coast. On one side, there is a view propounded by Gbagbo supporters that blames the country’s problems, which first boiled over almost ten years ago, on a Western imperial agenda resisted by Gbagbo and courted by Ouattara, a former IMF Deputy Director.

In this telling, Ouattara is a foreigner from Burkina Faso with close links to the French elite and international capital. Though the prime minister under Félix Houphouёt-Boigny, Ivory Coast’s post-independence dictator, Ouattara found himself locked out of politics when his alleged nationality conflicted with new laws barring foreigners from office. His rebels stormed Abidjan, leading to the civil war in 2002 that split the country along north-south lines. Now, Ouattara has returned, supported by the French, who, like much of the West, are clamouring anew for Africa’s riches, even as their own economies crumble.

The Arab Spring overthrows in North Africa are part of this narrative. So is a 2004 incident, when the French bombed Ivorian air force instalments after nine of their soldiers were killed in a bombardment. Huge protests resulted, and French troops killed 16 civilians. Here, Gbagbo is a hero, a Paris-educated academic who brought multi-party politics to Ivory Coast and resisted waves of neo-imperialism. This side of the story warns that France is planning to devalue the CFA franc – which has two forms used by 14 different countries – on January 1, 2012, to compensate for war expenditures in Ivory Coast and Libya, as well as stave off pressure from debt and Eurozone bailouts.

On this side of reality, the December 16, 2010, march on RTI’s offices, which was called for by Ouattara, was actually an attack, one that led to the murders of staff.

“Afterwards the TV satellites were destroyed,” About says. “The security guards were all killed, burned. It was to give a message to people.”

About and Claude tout their industry awards as credit to their characters. Each has won the prize of Super Ebony, meaning they’ve been acclaimed as the best journalists in Ivory Coast.

The international view

The other reality is more ‘mainstream’. It holds that RTI and Raison D’Etat were cogs in a propaganda campaign that incorporated people like Charles Blé Goudé, the leader of the Young Patriots wanted by the new Ivorian authorities and on a UN sanctions list for repeated incitements of violence, direction and participation in beatings, rape and extrajudicial killings, as well as intimidation of UN and French personnel.

“RTI played a negative role in the crisis,” says Stéphan Goué, general secretary of ICPJ, who has been nominated for a 2012 Free Speech Award by the Tully Centre in America. “Everything went well during the (election) campaign, just until we got to the results.”

HRW holds a similar view of the station.

“RTI essentially became a 24-hour propaganda machine often marked by direct incitement to violence against perceived Ouattara supporters, meaning those from the northern Ivory Coast and West African immigrants,” says Wells.

This version of events rejects About’s telling of December 16. It says rebel leaders remained in a hotel during the march, that demonstrators were mostly unarmed, and that they did not get close enough to the heavily defended RTI headquarters to kill guards. It does acknowledge that pro-Gbagbo people were killed that day, but frames them as aggressors whose deaths came about after they engaged the crowd with bullets.

This version of events does acknowledge plenty of human rights abuses by pro-Ouattara forces, including rapes, village-burnings, beatings, the use of child soldiers, and a massacre in the west of the country, where Gbagbo is from. But it recognises Ouattara’s presidency and, through France and the UN, is channelling funds into a post-conflict Ivory Coast. It accuses the former Gbagbo regime of human rights violations that far outweigh the frequency of commissions by Ouattara supporters, and it also posits Gbagbo as a deft exploiter of Ivory Coast’s ethnic differences and tensions.

Goué is not convinced by the awards won by About and Claude.

“We don’t give them to just anyone,” he says. “Those who get it aren’t really the best journalists. Mostly, they’re those who are close to power.”

These two realities are still duelling through the media, even as the country moves towards parliamentary elections scheduled for December 11, which Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front said it will boycott unless a series of demands are met, including the return of exiles like About and Claude.

Press freedom under Ouattara

In the beginning of Ouattara’s administration, military forces occupied pro-Gbagbo newspaper offices. The parent company that publishes Notre Voie, a pro-Gbagbo newspaper, had its offices burned down in April, according to ICPJ. The body of radio editor Lago Sylvain Gagneto was pulled out of a mass grave in mid-May. Some members of the press accused the government of having a list of 17 reporters marked for elimination. Other journalists said they received death threats and went into hiding. As recently as October, a pro-Gbagbo journalist was beaten bloody in the streets.

On November 24, Didier Dépry, Boga Sivori, and César Etou from Notre Voie were taken into police custody after running copy about the value of the CFA and 40 new Mercedes cars made available to members of government. They’ve been charged with incitement and sent to the same facility as Aboa.

“It’s still a very big issue,” says Pierre. “The new authorities have to show they respect the private press, the opposition press, etcetera.

“For the moment, we are still a little disappointed in Ouattara because the commitment for ensuring press freedom could be higher.”

CPJ wants Ouattara to investigate the 2004 disappearance of a French-Canadian journalist investigating corruption in the country’s cocoa industry. RWB would like to see an RTI general director not appointed by the president. It also wants the audio-visual sector to be liberalised and permit competition to channels like RTI. At the same time, it wants regulatory bodies to respond more forcefully to ethical violations in the papers, including the pro-Ouattara press.

“Sometimes, it has articles that are not following the ethics of the profession, articles that are attacking people without proof, and it has never been sanctioned by the regulatory authorities,” Pierre says.

Meanwhile, RTI is now being remade by the new president. Ouattara has appointed a new general director, Lazare Aka Sayé, to replace Pierre Brou Amessan, who HRW implicated in the crisis in the pages of They Killed Them Like It Was Nothing’, a 130-page report investigating the post-election crisis. A few weeks ago, About and Claude were officially sacked, along with Aboa, Ehoura, and 318 other RTI staff.

“It hasn’t changed,” says Goué. “It’s now a reflection of Ouattara. There aren’t any debate shows. It’s the same thing as before.”

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