After a significant fall in press freedom violations in recent years in Côte d'Ivoire, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is disturbed by the heavy and completely unjustified fines imposed on six journalists in summary proceedings in the past month. They send an alarming signal during the Covid-19 pandemic and ahead of the presidential election at the end of 2020.
In the third of the past month's three trials targeting independent and opposition journalists, Vamara Coulibaly, the editor of the independent newspaper Soir Info, and Paul Koffi, the editor of the opposition newspaper Nouveau Réveil, were each fined 2.5 million CFA francs (3,810 euros) on 31 March on charges of "publishing false news."
They were convicted for publishing a letter by the lawyers of Alain Lobognon, a parliamentarian arrested in Abidjan on 23 December who is now in Agboville prison. The letter expressed concern about the "difficult conditions" in which he is being held. He is an ally of Guillaume Soro, a former ally of President Alassane Ouattara and former national assembly speaker, who has announced he will run as an opposition candidate for president.
"Convicting journalists just for publishing a letter written by lawyers is nonsensical and completely unwarranted," said Assane Diagne, the director of RSF's West Africa office. "Aside from its absurd character, this latest in a series of recent fines on journalists is a serious press freedom violation after several years of significant progress in Côte d'Ivoire." Diagne added: "It is all the more regrettable for coming during a global pandemic and ahead of a much anticipated presidential election in which the role played by journalists is absolutely essential."
The Côte d'Ivoire Media Sector Union Federation (ISMCI), which groups 11 media unions, immediately issued a statement on 31 March condemning the "unjustified fines." ISMCI general secretary Guillaume Gbato accused prosecutor-general Adou Richard of being an "objector of conscientious journalists" and of trying to "gag" the media.
Cissé Sindou and Marc Dossa, two journalists with the pro-Soro newspaper Générations Nouvelles, were each fined 5 million CFA francs (7,620 euros) on 25 March on a charge of "publishing false news" for reporting that there were two coronavirus cases in Abidjan prison, a claim that was denied by the authorities.
Yacouba Gbané and Barthélémy Téhin of Le Temps, a newspaper that supports former President Laurent Gbagbo (an opponent of the current government), were fined 5 million CFA francs for defamation on 4 March. They had previously been summoned for questioning at gendarmerie headquarter over an article headlined, "In 10 years Côte d'Ivoire has become a gangster state" that was very critical of the government.
Côte d'Ivoire is ranked 71st out of 180 countries in RSF's 2019 World Press Freedom Index.