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As violence escalates, media caught in crossfire

Abidjan, March 2011: People at a bus station look to flee the increasingly severe post-election fighting
Abidjan, March 2011: People at a bus station look to flee the increasingly severe post-election fighting

IRIN/Alexis Adélé

The media is one of the casualties in Côte d'Ivoire's bloody political standoff, as journalists face attacks and threats from both sides and the fate of the state broadcaster remains up in the air, report the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). As a result of the chaos in Abidjan, no newspaper has been distributed since 31 March, reports RSF.

The departure of incumbent ruler Laurent Gbagbo seems imminent, say news reports, although negotiations by the United Nations and France have so far failed to ensure he relinquishes power. Until now, the government and his supporters have been targeting media critical of Gbagbo, while rebel fighters backing his UN-backed rival Alassane Ouattara have also harassed journalists. The attacks on the press have intensified in the battle for the economic capital, Abidjan. Human Rights Watch is calling on Ouattara to ensure that his troops do not commit reprisals or other abuses against civilians or supporters of Gbagbo in the fighting.

Most recently, forces loyal to Ouattara, who is internationally recognised to have won the November 2010 presidential election, announced that they took control of the Abidjan headquarters of state-owned Radio-Télévision Ivoirienne (RTI) on 31 March and cut its signal. According to Ouattara loyalists, RTI has had to resort to broadcasting its signal from a mobile broadcast truck in Abidjan. But Gbagbo's people deny the clams and insist that their camp still controls RTI.

"Propaganda and public appeals to Ivorians to mobilise are compounding such rumours and mysteries… as to who controls RTI and where Laurent Gbagbo is," RSF said. "The fierce street fighting is being accompanied by an all-out communication and information war. We caution all the forces involved against using the media to issue messages of hate against opposing forces or civilian groups."

According to RSF, French and UN peacekeeping forces targeted RTI with airstrikes on 4 April, allegedly to destroy RTI's antennae. RSF is calling on the French government to provide an immediate explanation. "Under international law, not even a news media being used as a propaganda outlet by an enemy force constitutes a legitimate military target. It is protected just as any civilian building is," said RSF.

Journalists face threats, intimidation and attacks that have forced many to choose between adopting partisan coverage or fleeing to safety, says CPJ. "Here, we are in a situation where if you are not with one camp, then you are against them. You must show you are partisan," reporter Stéphane Goué told CPJ. Goué, a leader of the Ivorian Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CIPJ), went into hiding last month after receiving threats related to his public statements about media restrictions.

MFWA reports that prominent investigative journalist André Silver Konan, a Gbagbo critic, also went into hiding after an 8 March kidnapping attempt by pro-Gbagbo youths.

Staff at the pro-Ouattara daily "Nord-Sud" told CPJ they had been threatened and intimidated following the kidnapping of newspaper driver Ouattara Yacouba, who has been missing since he was seized by armed and hooded men wearing police armbands as he left the office on 22 February. On 13 March, armed men stormed the offices of the paper, allegedly looking for weapons.

Meanwhile, two reporters who were held by police and severely tortured since their arrest on 28 January have been freed, report MFWA and RSF. Aboubacar Sanogo and Yayoro Charles Lopez Kangbé, journalists for Télévision Notre Patrie (TVNP) had been charged with "rebellion" and "threatening national security." TVNP supports the New Force rebels, who have controlled the north since 2002 and have largely backed Ouattara. Ouattara forces opened the doors of Abidjan's main prison on 31 March and freed the inmates, including the two journalists.

But journalists and newsrooms remain under siege. RSF reports that around 20 foreign journalists were blocked at Hotel Novotel in Abidjan on 4 April, when the hotel was overrun by gunmen. Other journalists in Abidjan have been confined to their homes because of violence in the streets, says RSF.

Armed pro-Gbagbo youths in military uniforms set fire to Téré FM, a community radio station in Abidjan, on 16 March, according to CPJ. Téré FM Director Mahmoud Tangara told CPJ the station did not cover politics and had been broadcasting only public service announcements by the Red Cross since mid-February, but that the attack may have been motivated by the owner's political support for Ouattara. Security forces in a police station adjacent to the station did not intervene to stop the attack, said Tangara.

On 15 March, security forces loyal to Gbagbo surrounded the offices of the pro-Ouattara daily "L'Intelligent d'Abidjan", preventing the publication of the 16 March edition, says MFWA. The same day, four armed rebel fighters seized at gunpoint a vehicle belonging to the Olympe media group, publisher of private newspapers "Soir Info" and "L'inter" and the magazine "Star", reports CPJ.

MFWA reports that on 18 March the pro-Ouattara daily "Le Jour Plus" was banned from publishing for 26 days for "insulting" and "humiliating" the "head of state" (Gbagbo) by publishing statements from top officials of Ouattara's government.

Some publishers are going online to get around the frequent banning and blocking of pro-Ouattara papers. MFWA reports that the publishers of the dailies "Le Nouveau Réveil" and "Le Repère" are starting an online version on http://www.abidjan.net - one of the most visited news websites by Ivoirians both at home and abroad.

Since Gbagbo has rejected calls to step down, Human Rights Watch has documented a four-month period of widespread abuses against civilians, including targeted killings, enforced disappearances, politically motivated rapes and unlawful use of force against protesters. Most were perpetrated by forces loyal to Gbagbo against real or perceived Ouattara supporters, as well as West African immigrants and Muslims, says Human Rights Watch. About 500 people have lost their lives, according to United Nations estimates.

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