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Ivory Coast Struggles With Press Freedom

While Ivory Coast is not on the list of worst performers in press freedom anymore, journalists and press regulators agree the sector is still struggling in the divided country. They say improving the state of journalists can mirror the peace process to reunite what was once West Africa's most prosperous country. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from our regional bureau in Dakar.

The head of the national commission for press in Ivory Coast, Eugene Die Kakou, says his country was in very bad company in terms of press freedom several years ago.

He points to the killing of a French radio journalist and the disappearance of another in the government-run south, amid suspicions journalists were allied with rebels that control the north.

But he says recently, with a new peace deal on the table, conditions are getting better.

He warns vigilance is still needed, and that media should be more professional.

The press commission recently intervened to free two journalists detained after publishing a story headlined, "The 100 Crimes of President Laurent Gbagbo." Kakou says a 2004 law forbids any journalist for being jailed for a report.

Kone Seydou who manages news on a major Ivorian Internet portal had to flee Ivory Coast in the early days of the war when he wrote for an opposition newspaper. He says the situation is somewhat better but still worrisome.

"We are really in danger. We are still in danger here in Cote d'Ivoire [Ivory Coast]," he said. "I have been obliged to leave the country. And I can say, every day, every day, when I go in the street, when I go back at home, when I go to my office, I am sometimes afraid."

"I look to see if they are looking, watching for me, somewhere, I do not know. Here even on my phone, it is still a problem. There have been no aggressions for months, but the problem is still here," he added.

Army commanders still call in journalists when they do not like their stories, but supporters of Mr. Gbagbo have stopped harassing vendors of opposition newspapers.

Asia William Varlet, who works for a newspaper close to President Gbagbo, says he believes that with the current situation journalists must play a role, and not ask for trouble.

"We do not have to carry out our job against the country we are living in," he said. "We have to work, we have to help our country and our fellow countrymen to get out of crisis. And we do not have to be the ones who endanger our country. We have to bear this in conscience and play our specific role."

Repeated peace deals have called for radio and television to give balanced accounts of Ivorian information, but observers say a large majority of all broadcast news is about Mr. Gbagbo, and there are also repeated specials about his trips and speeches.

A journalist who escaped a drive-by shooting attempt last year after an investigative report on alleged slush cocoa funds used for pro-Gbagbo protests, says press freedom is still an illusion.

In the case of the unsolved disappearance of investigative journalist Guy Andre Kieffer, a French judge recently asked to question five members of the Ivorian military, but permission was denied.