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Ivory Coast Press Freedom Remains Under Attack, says UN - 2004-02-10

Freedom of expression remains under attack in divided Ivory Coast, according to a U.N. official who recently toured the country. The official is warning government officials and rebels who control the north of the country that they will be held accountable for their actions.

A special U.N. investigator on freedom of expression, Ambeyi Ligabo, says he warned those instigating, condoning or allowing violence against journalists could be put on trial. During his visit, he met with authorities and journalists in the commercial capital, Abidjan, as well as at the rebel-headquarters in Bouake.

"It is important for any leaders to know that, sooner or later, the international law will catch up with him," he said. "I have discussed with various political leaders, both in Abidjan and in Bouake, and I have informed them that violation of human rights is an international criminal offense. Therefore, they will be called upon, when peace and stability comes to Cote d'Ivoire. They will be tracked down and the law will take its own course."

Newspaper Director Meite Syndou, of Le Patriote, which is close to a northern-based opposition party, says he hopes the U.N. envoy will pressure the government to change the legal framework for journalists in Ivory Coast.

Mr. Syndou says, so far, laws are only in place to punish journalists, but not to protect them. Since the insurgency started, one of his reporters has been forced to flee to Nigeria, after receiving death threats, and another reporter was knocked unconscious while covering a protest by youth groups close to President Laurent Gbagbo.

In addition, earlier this month a photojournalist from Le Patriote was beaten up after trying to take pictures of government security during a ceremony in the administrative capital, Yamoussoukro.

Ivorian journalists and international groups have accused both southern politicians and northern rebel leaders of orchestrating violence against journalists since the start of the civil war in September 2002. Newspaper vendors also have been targeted.

The pattern has continued despite last month's sentencing to 17 years in jail of policeman Dago Sery for killing Radio France International journalist Jean Helene outside police headquarters in October.

At the offices of an Abidjan newspaper favorable to President Gbagbo, Le Courrier d'Abidjan, Director Sylvestre Konin says he hopes the new U.N. report on press freedom in Ivory Coast will be fair and balanced.

He says most international groups, including Paris-based Reporters without Borders, have tended to accuse southern officials of being the worst offenders against freedom of expression by journalists sympathetic to the rebels. But he says violations have been committed by northerners as well.

"When you have some journalists from media close to the rebellion, then the reaction is prompt," he said. "What I want is an equal reaction."

Two of Mr. Konin's journalists were beaten up on January 16, while trying to enter the office of a rebel minister in the power-sharing government that is slowly establishing itself as part of a stalled peace deal. The minister's office had just been wrecked by activists close to Mr. Gbagbo.

In northern Ivory Coast, in the rebel-held city of Korhogo, a newspaper vendor sells photocopies of some southern newspapers, while also selling two-page and four-page locally made newspapers. Most pro-government southern newspapers have been banned in the rebel-held areas.

Many vendors who dared to go north through rebel roadblocks with southern newspapers stopped trying, after the newspapers they brought were systematically confiscated and destroyed.

At the same time, in the south, some youth groups have attacked newspaper vendors to prevent them from selling opposition newspapers.

State-owned broadcasting transmitters have also been destroyed, meaning northern populations are not getting any national television or radio news either.

A local journalist, who calls himself Omar, says northern populations feel totally isolated. He says rebels in the north tried to start their own newspapers, but he says their quality is so bad that they usually go bankrupt after a few issues.

At a news conference last week just before he left Ivory Coast, U.N. representative Ligabo, said he has taken all these issues into consideration.

He said he will prepare a report in March with recommendations for measures to restore freedom of expression in Ivory Coast. He said he hopes Ivorian authorities will implement the measures, so that journalists can participate in the country's reconciliation.

"Hopefully, with the free expression of ideas, there will be free elections, bringing up democracy and stability, which everybody including me wish for the people of Cote d'Ivoire," he said.

But Mr. Ligabo also warned that freedom of expression should not be misused in "hate media," which he says describes much of Ivorian journalism since the start of the civil war.

Mr. Ligabo says journalists must understand their own share of the responsibility for the creation of the current climate of persecution, death threats and constant harassment in Ivory Coast.