Repression of the Press in Cote d'Ivoire

A soldier of the Forces Republicains de Cote d'Ivoire wears an ammunition armband during the inauguration of President Alassane Ouattara on May 21.

The international media has largely pulled out of Cote d'Ivoire, nearly a year after disputed elections forced ex-leader Laurent Gbagbo from power, brought about a brief but frightening civil war, and put former IMF economist Alassane Ouattara in the West African nation's highest office.

The foreign press has moved on to covering Gbagbo's trial for war crimes at The Hague. But Ivoirian journalists have continued to cover the war's fallout and the activities of the new regime. And for that, they have paid a heavy price.

Three journalists for a daily newspaper reputed close to Gbagbo were detained for two weeks and released, and another remains incarcerated. The Ivoirian Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CIPJ), a local NGO, says others have been forced into hiding or threatened. CIPJ Director Stéphane Goué reports that Awa Ehoura, a former presenter on pro-government station Radio Television Ivoirienne, has been forced into hiding and had her assets frozen. Others have been forced into exile. During the war, according to CIPJ archives, pro-Ouattara militias burned the houses of several journalists and chased them from their homes.

Didier Depry and César Etou, editors of Notre Voie, a daily close to the former government, and Notre Voie reporter Boga Sivori were released Dec. 6. Hermann Aboa, a former TV news presenter, has been held without trial since July on charges of using his position to incite hatred. A Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) analysis found the allegations to be "baseless." Ivoirian law limits pretrial detention to 48 hours. Furthermore, a 2004 law prohibits arrests of journalists linked to their work.

"In only seven months of power the number of violations is surprising," says Goué.

The detentions are "very surprising, especially in light of President Ouattara's rhetoric," says CPJ's Mohamed Keita. "He came into office promising to uphold democracy, adopting a language of reconciliation and promising that those close to Gbagbo would not be persecuted. But the government has been vindictive." 

As an opposition politician and campaigner, Ouattara spoke actively in favor of a free press. His program of government promised that "the importance of the liberty of the print and audiovisual media will be reaffirmed." Ally Coulibaly, his ambassador to France, declared in an April interview with Reporters without Borders that "President Ouattara values that all journalists should be allowed to do their work without insecurity."

"He lies like he breathes," says Goué. "We feel betrayed."

"The justice system is being used as a tool for the regime to … silence its critics," says Keita. "At least two journalists have lost their lives in incidents where Ouattara forces have been implicated. Ouattara spoke a lot about zero tolerance for impunity, but there has been a lot of impunity for officials who have abused their power."

Attempts to reach government sources for comment were unsuccessful. "We've had words with the ministries of justice and communication, but the order [to keep Aboa and the three Notre Voie journalists imprisoned] seems to have come from the Ministry of the Interior," says Goué. "That's a shock for us."

"It surprises us very much that the government has been so stubborn, because everyone knows our colleagues cannot legally be deprived of their liberty," says Goué. 

Depry returned to work four days after his release. He says he and his colleagues were arrested after publishing speculation on the consequences of devaluing the country's currency and allegations that Ouattara had used state funds to buy 40 Mercedes for ministers and family members.

"We were arrested on Nov. 24, interrogated by the criminal police ... treated like common bandits and held in isolation," he recalls. "We were charged with threats to the head of state and the national economy." New charges of "incitement through the press of theft, pillage and destruction of others' goods" were added a week later. On Nov. 29, the three declared a hunger strike. At a brief hearing on Dec. 6, all charges were dropped and Depry, Etou and Sivori were released. 

"We were totally cleared and told we had been detained illegally," Depry recalls. "We decided not to file a complaint. We decided to do our work as journalists, to denounce this and fight for democracy in this country. There's no democracy without press freedom.

"Yes, we are scared that it will happen again. We continue to receive threatening calls and text messages. But we have to do our work," Depry says. "If there are threats to the public, we will denounce them without a second thought.

"Doctors are being beaten by angry people in our hospitals in Treichville and Cocody, because there are no medicines. When we learn that the head of state has bought 40 Mercedes, while there were no medicines in our hospitals, he is going to have to face the public. We published that, and that is why we were arrested.

"The president needs to understand that we are doing our work. He can't call himself a democrat and not let us work freely."

Under the previous regime, Goué and Depry acknowledge that journalists were often harassed for ambitious or dramatically worded material. But before the war, sanctions most often took the form of brief suspensions or "expressions of disapproval" from the National Press Council. Imprisonments were rare but did happen. 

"The situation was not much better under the old government. There was one case where journalists from Le Courrier d'Abdijan were imprisoned," says Depry. "We haven't perfected democracy in this country. But the pressure needs to stop."

Goué says he thinks the arrests are "a warning that the government wants to send—in particular, to the opposition press—that they are ready to violate laws to achieve their ends."

"Ouattara has barely been in power and already he has betrayed us," Goué says. "He worries us very much."

Ruby Pratka is a nomadic, Canadian-educated freelance journalist. She speaks English, Russian, French and Quebecois. Her suitcase is currently parked in Nimes, France, but her heart and mind are in East Africa.