Authorities in Ivory Coast should drop their investigation into journalist Yao Alex Hallane Clément, and cease intimidating and harassing members of the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On November 3, police officers arrested Yao, a reporter with the privately owned PDCI 24 TV broadcaster, along with at least 20 other people at the home of opposition leader and former President Henri Konan Bédié in Abidjan, the capital, and held him until November 10, according to the journalist, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview, as well as statements by the National Union of Press Professionals of Côte d'Ivoire (SYNAPP-CI), a local trade group, and by Richard Adou, the government prosecutor in the case.
Separately, on November 9, plain-clothed police officers arrested Stéphane Beti, a reporter with the privately owned Cameroon-based Agence de Presse Panafricaine news agency, while he was reporting on demonstrations in Yopougon, a suburb of Abidjan, Beti told CPJ over the phone. The men beat him and then delivered him to a local police station, where he was interrogated and held for several hours, he said.
Protests have taken place in Ivory Coast since the country held elections on October 31, which have been disputed by a coalition of opposition parties, including the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast led by Bédié, according to media reports.
"Authorities in Ivory Coast must ensure the safety of journalists at all times, including amid political tensions surrounding elections," said Angela Quintal, CPJ's Africa program coordinator. "Journalist Yao Alex Hallane Clément should have never been arrested for his work; any legal proceedings against him should be dropped immediately, and authorities must stop harassing journalists for their political coverage."
Yao told CPJ he was at Bédié's house with a PDCI 24 TV camera operator to cover a press conference when the house was raided by police. Yao broadcast the raid on Facebook, in what Tonian Amalaman, the director of PDCI 24 TV, told CPJ was his last report before being arrested. Yao said he was arrested despite identifying himself as a journalist, and the camera operator was able to leave.
Officers took Yao to a local police station, and then transferred him to the Directorate of Territorial Surveillance (DST), a facility reserved for alleged terrorists and other dangerous criminals, where he was held without access to a lawyer for five days, he said.
Police officers interrogated Yao and accused him of being a "propagandist" supportive of the opposition in the election, he said. He said he repeatedly told the officers that he was a journalist, and not a politician. Yao told CPJ that PDCI 24 TV's editorial line is generally supportive of Bédié's party, but is not financially connected to it.
In a November 6 press release by Adou, the prosecutor investigating Yao's case, Yao's name is listed as a suspect of an investigation into various alleged crimes, including "acts of terrorism," "murders," and "publication and disclosure of false news."
Yao said he was released on November 10 after the intervention of local groups including SYNAPP-CI, but the investigation has not been dropped.
On November 9, Beti was filming protests over the disputed election with his phone and interviewing demonstrators when a plain-clothed police officer with a gun stopped him and forced him into a vehicle with several other armed men, the journalist told CPJ.
"At the time of my arrest apart from the weapons they had nothing that one could identify them as being police officers," Beti said.
Beti said the men beat him with their hands and a belt and tried to seize his phone, but he resisted and repeatedly said that he was a journalist. They drove him to Kouté village in Yopougon, where the men presented him before a local police commissioner saying, "voila, a Cameroonian journalist," Beti told CPJ.
Beti said the officers beat him again, and then transferred him to a local police station where officers seized his phone and searched through its contents. They then interrogated him, asking why he had contacts for Ivorian opposition figures and an image of a motorcycle that had been damaged in the post-election protests, Beti said, adding that the officers accused him of presenting a negative depiction of Ivory Coast in his coverage.
Beti told CPJ that while in the custody he constantly feared he would be shot if he resisted.
After the intervention of local groups including SYNAPP-CI, the National Union of Journalists of Côte d'Ivoire, and the Association of the Foreign Press in Côte d'Ivoire, the police released Beti without charge at about 5 p.m. The officers returned his phone and press card, but Beti said he lost a black bag that contained a USB stick.
Bleu Charlemagne, a spokesperson for Ivory Coast's national police, told CPJ over the phone that he could not comment on Yao's case, but said that Beti had been caught up in arrests of protesters and alleged that he had not properly identified himself as a member of the press.
Charlemagne said he was not aware of the police search of Beti's phone, and denied that officers threatened Beti with their weapons. When CPJ messaged Charlemagne for comment on Beti's allegations that officers assaulted him, he did not respond.
CPJ called Adou for comment but he did not answer.