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Ivorian Journalists Could Face Jail Time if Convicted

  • Anne Look

In Ivory Coast, the trial of three journalists detained since last week opened Monday in Abidjan. The journalists were charged with theft of an official document, after refusing to reveal their sources on a story about corruption in the cocoa industry.

A judge will rule Wednesday in Ivory Coast in the case of three journalists who are charged with theft of an official document, diffusion of a file still under review, and disclosure of a secret document.

Editor-in-chief, Saint-Claver Oula, and two other senior editors were arrested last week after their newspaper, Le Nouveau Courrier, published the findings of a government report into graft allegations in the cocoa industry.

The three editors were formally charged under the criminal code Friday, after refusing to reveal the source of their information to Ivory Coast's state prosecutor.

The case has sparked condemnation from media rights groups in Ivory Coast and abroad.

The head of Ivory Coast's National Journalist Union, Mame Camara, says journalists have the right to inform the public, and the public has the right to information. He says the union condemns the arrest and detention of these journalists. He says the journalists did not steal, and according to the press code, journalists should not be detained.

A 2004 press code in Ivory Coast eliminated criminal penalties for most press offenses and prohibited the pre-trial detention of journalists.

Mohamed Keita, Africa researcher for the media rights group the Committee to Protect Journalists says the three journalists were arrested "in the line of duty", and the press code should apply.

"These journalists were arrested while carrying out their professional duties as investigative journalists," Keita said. "This is a press offense, if anything. It is not a criminal offense. We feel that by charging them with theft, the public prosecutor is criminalizing investigative journalism in Ivory Coast."

This case, Keita says, demonstrates the need for legislation in Ivory Coast guaranteeing access to information and protection of journalists' confidential sources.

The prosecution has requested 12-month prison sentences for each of the three journalists and payment of a $20,000 fine.

But lawyers representing the journalists say the charges would not hold up in court.

A lawyer for the three journalists, Abdou Sarr, says there was no theft because the journalists received an electronic version of the document. He says the press law prohibits the detention of journalists, and it is worrisome to think that this law could be violated in order to get a journalist to reveal his source. He says that could mean that the fight for press freedom in Ivory Coast has been in vain.

The three journalists remain in prison as they await Wednesday's verdict.