Hundreds of members of the radical pro-government Young Patriots militia seized control of the state television and radio broadcaster Radiodiffusion Télévision Ivoirienne (RTI) today, broadcasting calls for protests against the French and U.N. presence in the country, according to local sources. They were also said to have ransacked a community radio station that refused to allow them on the air.
The Young Patriots, who are loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo, had surrounded RTI's headquarters on Monday in an effort to gain access to its studios, according to the sources. The militia members finally succeeded this morning, despite the presence of government security forces. Those sources said the security forces did not appear to make any effort to halt the Young Patriots. Independent observers consider RTI a public service broadcaster with a professional news operation.
The Young Patriots held control of the station throughout the day, broadcasting repeated messages directing supporters to specific spots for demonstrations, including RTI, U.N. headquarters, and the French embassy. Large crowds of demonstrators formed at each place during the day.
In the central town of Daloa, the Young Patriots broke into community broadcaster Radio Tchrato-Daloa, smashed and looted equipment, forcing it off air, according to local sources. The station, run by the local authorities in Daloa, had refused to broadcast Young Patriots' messages calling for attacks on the U.N. base in Daloa. Government security forces had been informed of threats to the station but were not present at the time of the attack, a source in Daloa told the Committee to Protect Journalists.
"It is outrageous that the Young Patriots are able to terrorize the media and to spread dangerous propaganda in this way," CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. "We urge President Gbagbo to do everything in his power to halt these violent attacks on the media."
Protests broke out on Monday after international mediators recommended the dissolution of parliament, whose mandate has expired. Gbagbo's Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI) withdrew from the transitional government in protest, and called for U.N. and French peacekeepers to leave the country, according to international news reports. Protests escalated today after U.N. peacekeepers came under attack from the Young Patriots in the west of the country. Several protesters died, and the U.N. forces pulled out of their base in Guiglo. Ivory Coast has been divided between a rebel-held north and a government-held south since a failed coup attempt in 2002.
This is not the first time that RTI has come under attack at a time of national crisis. In November 2004, pro-government forces seized control of the broadcaster and used radio and television to incite hostility toward foreigners and Ivoirian ethnic groups deemed sympathetic to the rebels. Violent clashes ensued. The United Nations condemned the broadcasts. The government re-installed station management in January 2005.