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Ivory Coast January 31, 2005
H.E. Laurent Gbagbo
Office of the President
01 B.P. 1354
Fax: (011.225) 21-14-25
It is shocking for the members of the Overseas Press Club of America, and indeed for the whole world, to witness the collapse of democracy and free expression in your country. The recent campaign of disinformation by the state-run media is disgraceful.
Your government’s recent take-over of the Radio Télévision Ivoirienne (RTI) and Radio Ivory Coast (RCI), coupled with encouragement of violence and intimidation against the country’s independent press, have made a mockery of your country’s commitment to a free press. For a country to grow and prosper, the people’s right to be informed must be sacrosanct and inviolate. Media control and the dissemination of false information are activities of the past and have no place in the present.
In your recent attempt to re-unite Ivory Coast, a key component of the campaign, according to observers, was the take-over of the broadcast media. Early in the morning of November 4, 2004, as the country’s military forces launched operation “Dignity,” a significant military detachment arrived in the courtyard of RTI, followed by civilian vehicles containing the station’s new management. All heads of news programs were replaced and a new staff of on-air presenters and journalists was put in place.
On the same day, more than 100 armed youths attacked the offices of four independent newspapers in Abidjan. The looting and destruction of equipment and documents at the offices of Le Patriote, 24 Heures, Le Nouveau Réveil and Le Libéral Nouveau, followed the orchestrated campaign of violence ten days earlier — when gangs of young people seized and destroyed opposition newspapers. In addition, distribution of eight publications, including the four attacked, has been banned in the government-held south.
On November 5, the pro-government daily, Le Courrier d’Abidjan, said, “The liberation of Ivory Coast necessarily depends on the liberation of the state media. The take-over at RTI is the first battle in the struggle for real press freedom.” However, disproving this claim of “real press freedom,” reports carried on RTI and RCI following the take-over, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), “strayed completely from journalism into propaganda.” RSF cited several examples of hate messages, false information and rumors broadcast alongside calls for residents to “take to the streets” and join the anti-French uprising. Militia troops continued their presence outside the media offices.
In this climate of hatred and violence, it is not surprising that one reporter was killed and several physically injured. On November 5, Julien N’Guessan, a sports journalist was attacked by demonstrators on arrival for work at RTI. The next day, Lazare Ahua, an RTI cameraman was shot in the feet as he was filming a counterstrike by French peacekeeping forces who were responding to an Ivoirian air force attack on French positions. On November 7, journalist Antoine Massé was fatally shot while covering a demonstration aimed at blocking the advance of French troops.
We welcome the statement made by Your Excellency in late November — which condemned the ransacking of the newspaper offices and announced the opening of an investigation into the incident. It is encouraging to note that in early December, the “Young Patriots” militia positions around the RTI and RCI headquarters were removed and the hate-mongering tone of the broadcasts has been moderated. However, the changed staff remains in place and press freedom continues to be absent.
In an editorial last month (November 21, 2004), The New York Times remembered the first three decades of Ivory Coast’s independence as “West Africa’s greatest economic success story.” Now, however, the Times said, “So desperate has Mr. Gbagbo become to sustain his own power, he seems prepared . . . to tear apart his own country.”
As the New Year begins, we urge you strongly to reverse your government’s recent actions designed to control the media. We hope that you will act to restore the RTI and RCI managements and news staffs as they were on November 3, encourage the free flow of information in your country and allow the unhampered distribution of all its newspapers.
Norman A. Schorr
Co-chairmen, Freedom of the Press Committee
Office of the Prime Minister
01 B.P. 1533
Fax: (011.225) 21-70-41
Ambassador Djessan Philippe Djangone-Bi
Permanent Mission of Ivory Coast to the United Nations
46 East 74th Street
New York, New York 10021
Fax: (212) 717-4492
Dago Pascal Kokora
Ambassador of Ivory Coast to the U.S.A.
Embassy of Ivory Coast
2424 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20008
Fax: (202) 462-9444
U.S. Ambassador to Ivory Coast
Embassy of the United States of America
5 Rue Jesse Owens