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UN envoy slams fear and lack of responsibility in media

A UN human rights official has warned that fear, intimidation and a lack of editorial responsibility in the media were hampering "the free circulation of balanced opinions and ideas" in Cote d'Ivoire.

Ambeyi Ligabo, the Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights, made these comments on Monday in a preliminary statement following a visit to the war-torn country from 29 January to 5 February."

"There is a pressing need to discuss freely the future of this country wihout falling again into the nightmare of civil war," he stressed.

Besides criticising the shortcomings of the local media, Ligabo condemned the widespread harassment of civilians by the security forces at numerous checkpoints since Cote d'Ivoire plunged into civil war in September 2002.

"There is a deep sense of uncertainty and fear because of the overwhelming presence of military forces and police check points which often harass and extort money from ordinary citizens for no reaon," he said.

"This is an additional negative element impinging on the right to freedom of expression and negates the efforts towards reconciliation and peace."

As Ligabo published his preliminary findings, another UN senior official was visiting Cote d'Ivoire to investigate ethnic conflicts thrown up by the civil war.

Doudou Diene, a UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, arrived in Abidjan on Monday. He was due to spend 12 days visiting both government and rebel-held parts of the country

Ethnic conflicts, often related to land disputes, have continued to trigger sporadic violence despite the declaration of a ceasefire in the civil war in May last year. Such conflicts have also resulted in the upheaval of entire rural communities.

Relief workers estimate that several hundred people have been killed in ethnic clashes since the conflict began, mainly in the volatile west of Cote d'Ivoire.

The persecution of immigrants from other West African countries in the government-held south has meanwhile persuaded about 500,000 to flee back to Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea.

But Ligabo, who will publish his full report on March 15, said: "I strongly believe there is hope for a better future."

The special rapporteur on human rights said there was "a vital need for professional training and financial investments in the press and media industry."

In particular he called for the replacement of television and radio stations destroyed in the fighting between forces loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo and rebels who occupy the north of the country.

Ligabo highlighted the lack of an effective mechanism to ensure "responsibility and discipline among newspaper publishers and editors."

He urged the Ivorian government to set up a National Human Rights Commission and Press Commission as a first step towards obliging the local media to "operate in a more organised and responsible manner."

Ligabo also urged the government to seek the assitance of the United Nations and specialised international organisations in making the local media become more professional and balanced in its coverage.

Although Cote d'Ivoire has more than a dozen privately owned newspapers, many of them are closely linked to political factions.

Several are noted for the vitriolic nature of their propaganda and their scant regard for balance in the reporting of news and the discussion of ideas.

Ligabo said life for independent journalists and those linked to the opposition was very difficult. He noted that many had suffered both physical and verbal attacks.

In October last year a policeman shot dead Jean Helene, a reporter of Radio France Internationale. The policeman was subsequently convicted of murder and jailed for 17 years.

But Ligabo noted that much more recently during his own visit to Cote d'Ivoire three journalists of the opposition newspaper Le Patriote, which is sympathetic to the rebel movement, had been beaten up by officials while covering a presidential visit to the official capital Yamoussoukro.

"I firmly invite the government to bring this kind of incidents to an end," he said.

Several newspapers and one radio station perceived as being sympathetic to the opposition have been attacked and ransacked since the civil war began and many journalists have received death threats.

Towards the end of last year, members of militia-style pro-Gbagbo youth groups, seized and burned newspapers regarded as hostile to the president and attempted to prevent their distribution for several weeks.

Meanwhile, in the rebel-controlled north of the country, the circulation of newspapers printed in Abidjan is heavily restricted and local radio and television stations remain under the tight control of the rebel authorities.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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