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Ivorian Journalists Discuss Challenges Caused by Civil War - 2003-05-02


As the world marks Press Freedom Day Saturday, journalists in Ivory Coast are looking back on the challenges they have faced during seven months of civil war.

Journalists for Le Patriote newspaper are busily preparing the next day's edition in cramped offices at a secret unmarked location in Abidjan.

They have been forced to move twice during the seven-month conflict, after pro-government militiamen attacked their offices.

One reporter, Seydou Kone, has just returned to Ivory Coast after five months in exile in Nigeria because of something he wrote. He says he received death threats after writing about poor Abidjan immigrant neighborhoods being burned down by soldiers. "I made some report on what the soldiers were doing in Abidjan, so they started the death squads, so they wanted to kill me," he said. "They tried three times to arrest me. They arrested my parents, and tried to force them to explain to tell them where I am. They refused so my parents asked me to leave the country. "

The former owner of Le Patriote has been named minister of telecommunications and new technologies in the power-sharing government that includes rebels and opposition leaders. Mr. Kone says, now he feels safe enough to return to work.

But some of his colleagues say they were recently beaten up at pro-government rallies. Mr. Kone, who is from rebel-held northern Ivory Coast, says Le Patriote is seen by many in Abidjan as pro-rebel, pro-northerners and pro-immigrant. "Our journal talked about what really happened in the country. So, they used to show us [portray] as the enemies of the country on the national television and radio," he said. "So, it is still very difficult to work in Cote d'Ivoire."

Le Patriote is closely affiliated with opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, whose base of support is in the Muslim-dominated north. Many Ivorians there are immigrants from neighboring countries Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea. Rebels say they took up arms in September in part because Mr. Ouattara was excluded from previous elections over allegations he is not really Ivorian.

Another newspaper in Abidjan is Notre Voie, Our Voice, which is closely affiliated with President Laurent Gbagbo.

Editor in chief Cesar Etou says he believes newspapers like his, which took a stand against the rebels, were necessary to prevent the insurgents from taking over the whole country.

He says there are some journalists who are working for the survival of Ivory Coast, while others are apologizing for crimes. Overall, he says, Ivorian media worked to block the rebels, mobilize pro-government groups and inspire soldiers to fight.

Mr. Etou complains the rebels have not allowed journalists to travel in northern and western areas under their control.

As revenge, he says, he sent undercover reporters to rebel headquarters in the northern city of Bouake, and then published a two-page spread in his newspaper with the exact addresses and mobile phone numbers of dozens of rebel leaders.

Mr. Etou says extremism sells during times of conflict. He says his readers want editorials and stories that attack the rebels.

He says his newspaper, Notre Voie, sold one of its lowest numbers of newspapers on the day it ran the headline that read "Rebels Enter Government".

U.N. envoy to Ivory Coast Albert Tevoedjre recently hosted a roundtable discussion on responsibilities and ethics in journalism.

Mr. Tevoedjre called on Ivorian journalists to be more careful with facts. Otherwise, he warned, what a journalist writes could lead to dead bodies in the streets.

The new minister of communications in Ivory Coast is Guillaume Soro, the main rebel leader. In one of his first statements as minister earlier this week, Mr. Soro called on Ivorian journalists to "start working toward national reconciliation and stop being so inflammatory."

Many newspapers reacted angrily the next day, with articles warning the new minister to watch his back in Abidjan.