Such is the concern about the role the Ivoirian media are playing in ramping up the tension in Côte d’Ivoire that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently warned that International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments could eventually be handed down on those inciting violence.
Most of the Ivoirian media is deeply polarized. The state-run Radiotélévision Ivoirienne (RTI), the most widely accessed source of news in the country, is an unwavering champion of Laurent Gbagbo and a persistent vilifier of his internationally-backed rival claimant to the presidency, Alassane Ouattara.
RTI regularly depicts Ouattara’s supporters as posing a threat to peace and has even accused some of them of bribing and drugging children to enforce a stay-at-home, or “dead city” protest called to press home Ouattara’s case.
Ivoirian TV has also set its sights on the UN mission in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), accusing the UN’s troops of shooting and injuring civilians during recent skirmishes in Abidjan, and interviewing the alleged victims on its news bulletins.
There have been a series of attacks and incidents involving ONUCI personnel and vehicles in recent days. On the night of 13 January, shots were fired at one of the mission’s patrols in the Abobo district of Abidjan. According to an ONUCI statement, the attackers came from security forces aligned to Gbagbo.
A day earlier an ONUCI food convoy was blocked and looted, again, according to the mission, by forces from Gbagbo’s camp. Several ONUCI vehicles have been torched in Abidjan.
On 18 January, the peacekeeping mission issued a statement “deploring the repeated acts of aggression - backed by the forces of President Laurent Gbagbo’s camp - against its patrols.” It made reference in particular to an episode during the recent visit of African Union (AU) mediator Raila Odinga, noting that: a “group of youths from President Gbagbo’s camp surrounded peacekeepers who were waiting for Odinga. The armed troops supporting the youths opened fire towards the [UN] vehicles, obliging the ONUCI soldiers to respond by firing in the air.”
ONUCI strongly criticized the version of the incident provided by RTI, which said that the peacekeepers’ actions had left several people carrying gunshot wounds.
|The Council of Ministers of the European Union formally approved sanctions, including travel bans, on 19 Ivoirian nationals on 22 December. Those sanctioned included:
Israel Amessan Brou – Director-Genetral of RTI, accused of being “responsible for the disinformation plan”. Brou was appointed head of RTI in March 2008, but had been acting chief since November 2006. He had previously been a television presenter and had been an important broadcaster in January 2006 during a wave of anti-UN protests in Abidjan and elsewhere. This was the period when Jeunes Patriotes effectively invaded the studios and were given airtime, issuing a series of appeals for mobilization against the UN in Côte d’Ivoire.
Franck Anderson Kouassi – President and previously Secretary-General of the state-run Conseil National de Communication Audiovisuel (CNCA), the National Council on Audiovisual Communication, accused of “active complicity in the disinformation campaign”. The CNCA has jurisdiction over state broadcast media and is also the body that regulates transmissions of foreign broadcasts. In a recent interview, when quizzed on restrictions on foreign broadcasters, Laurent Gbagbo referred his interviewer to the CNCA. Kouassi has been involved with the CNCA since 2001. He was previously at the independent newspaper Le Jour and was arrested and detained in October 2000 when Robert Guei was in office.
Nadiana Bamba – accused of being “responsible for disinformation campaign and incitement to intercommunity hatred and violence”. She is listed on the sanctions list as director press group Le Temps Notre Voie, but is best known as Gbagbo’s “second wife”. A former reporter with Radio Numéro 1, she has been a key figure in public relations campaigning for Gbagbo as head of the Cyclone publishing house. A Muslim from the northwest who has campaigned for Gbagbo in areas where rival presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara has strong support.
ONUCI stressed the bulletin in question “does not conform to the facts” and denounced it as “part of a propaganda campaign aimed at inciting hatred among President Gbagbo’s supporters against ONUCI”.
While a few Ivoirian newspapers strive to occupy the middle ground, the bulk of the written press is firmly divided into two camps, with allegiances for the most part clearly colour-coded: the pro-Gbagbo papers use blue mastheads, while those backing Ouattara are green.
The language used is often vitriolic. A 19 January headline in the pro-Gbagbo Notre Voie declared that “Ouattara opts for terrorism”, above a story that alleged that Ouattara supporters had issued death threats to those suspected of supporting Gbagbo. The same edition reported that people in Ouattara’s pay had cut the throat of a forest warden in the Abobo district of Abidjan.
The following day’s edition of the same paper accused ONUCI of escorting “young ladies” to members of Ouattara’s camp currently confined, under UN protection, in Abidjan’s Golf Hotel, the operational and living headquarters of Ouattara and his supporters since the immediate aftermath of the elections and now referred to as “the Republic of Golf”.
Notre Voie and other pro-Gbagbo papers have long pursued a rigidly anti-French line, often implicating France in the initial insurgency of 2002 and denouncing a perceived alliance between Paris and Ouattara. The 20 January edition accused France of rearming the Forces Nouvelles, the former rebels who control much of the north of the country.
“Every day we receive information that leads us to believe that those who helped Ouattara mount his armed rebellion are now reorganizing it,” the article said.
On the other side of the fence, the pro-Ouattara Le Patriote referred to Gbagbo as a “dictator” and an “assassin of democracy” who “kills his own countrymen with the support of Liberian and Angolan militia”.
The defiantly partisan approach of the newspapers on sale in Abidjan is a source of exasperation to those seeking an internal dialogue. “The private press that works for political parties makes no effort to preach peace. It’s propaganda. Every paper produces propaganda,” Patrick N’Gouan, chairman of the Civil Society Convention, told IRIN.
“I think that for the last two months the national television has from time to time incited violence and hatred. The same applies to the rebels’ television in the north,” he added.
“This problem is very serious for national cohesion and we condemn it. Gbagbo’s camp’s control of the television is dangerous”.
N’Gouan is convinced that the inflammatory approach is exacerbating tensions. “Much of the media is filled with mistrust, hatred, radicalism,” N’Gouan said. “This hatred doesn’t lead to democracy. It paves the way for violence”.
Notre Voie’s editor-in-chief César Etou disagreed, telling IRIN that “the conflict is taking place more in the press than on the ground.”
“I don’t believe it is the Ivoirian press that is feeding violence. Most of the press has been discredited. The population does not systematically follow the orders of the press,” he said, adding that the press had “not played a role in inciting violence against ONUCI”.
Asked about Ban’s warning of ICC indictments, Etou said he believed the UN Secretary-General had been “misinformed” about the situation on the ground.
“Mr Ban Ki-moon would do well to remove his troops from Côte d’Ivoire,” he said.
It was confirmed from New York on 19 January that the Security Council in New York had authorized the deployment of 2,000 additional troops to ONUCI, bringing the total number of blue helmets to close to 12,000.
On 19 January, two UN officials warned of the “possibility of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing in Côte d’Ivoire.”
In a joint statement, Francis Deng, the special adviser on the prevention of genocide; and Edward Luck, the special adviser on the responsibility to protect, also expressed serious concern about “continuing hate speech that appears to be aimed at inciting violent attacks against particular ethnic and national groups.”