ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Newspapers allied with Ivory Coast's former ruler resumed publication this week, after observing a three-day moratorium to protest what editors and press freedom groups describe as a climate of intimidation.
The newspapers halted publication to protest an incident in which six men brandishing machetes and crow bars attacked the headquarters of a media house in Abidjan allied with ex-leader Laurent Gbagbo, who is now at the International Criminal Court awaiting trial on charges of crimes against humanity following last year's near-civil war.
On the night of Aug. 18, the attackers forced their way into the headquarters of the Cyclone Group, which publishes the pro-Gbagbo newspaper Le Temps, assaulted a security guard, ransacked office furniture and set on fire the first floor of the premises.
The six newspapers halted publication last Friday, and resumed on Monday, missing the Friday and weekend editions. Last week, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement calling on President Alassane Ouattara's administration to halt the censorship of critical publications and to investigate the Cyclone attack.
The attack comes after Le Temps recently resumed publication, following a suspension imposed by the state-run National Press Council for anti-Ouattara coverage. The newspaper had published an opinion piece referring to the sitting president as a "ghoulish vampire," according to reports cited by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The opposition media managers said it was the sixth suspension levied against Le Temps under Ouatarra - and the 11th targeting pro-Gbagbo newspapers, since Ouattara came to power in April 2011.
This country on the coast of West Africa, which is the world's largest producer of cocoa, was nearly dragged into civil war following the contested 2010 election. All the major international observers agreed that Ouattara had won the vote, but Gbagbo refused to cede. For months, Ouattara pleaded with the international community for help, and finally enlisted the backing of a former rebel group, which swept across the country, and with the aid of United Nations airstrikes, arrested Gbagbo inside the bunker where he was holed-up in Abidjan.
During Gbagbo's 10 years in office, pro-Ouattara newspapers were frequently the subject of harassment and intimidation campaigns. The turn-of-events is disappointing because many had hoped that the U.S.-educated Ouattara would usher in an era of democratic freedom.
Since coming to office, Ouattara's administration has been accused of pursuing "victor's justice," by only prosecuting people allied with Gbagbo.
"We call on President Alassane Ouattara to demonstrate tolerance and a commitment to democratic principles," said the Committee to Protect Journalists Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. "As the country weathers a period of great tension, the president can set an important example by allowing the voices of opposition to air their concerns and opinions, as harsh as they may be."
The attack on the pro-Gbagbo media house was condemned by the U.N. and Reporters Without Borders.
Reporters Without Borders said two journalists from the opposition newspaper Le Nouveau Courrier had received death threats via phone calls and text messages the same weekend as the Cyclone attack.
One of the text messages, seen by an AP reporter, accuses a journalist of feigning neutrality while writing "vehement words against the regime" and asks if the journalist "wants to die standing up."
Raphael Lakpe, chairman of the National Press Council, denied that the government was placing undue restraints on pro-Gbagbo outlets. "I myself have been a journalist of the opposition for many years, but what I have to say is that you can oppose in a responsible way," he said.
Yacouba Gbane, editor of Le Temps, said the newspaper would not back down from critical coverage. "The attacks will never intimidate us," he said. "To the contrary, they boost us. We will continue to work regardless of the threats of those who want to keep us quiet."