Côte d'Ivoire

Hate media : Gagging Côte d'Ivoire's peace process

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Somewhat reminiscent of Rwanda's Radio Mille Collines (RTLM FM), which in 1994 called for the "slaughter of all Tutsi cockroaches and their Hutu sympathizers", hate messages in Côte d'Ivoire are broadcast over local radio waves, espoused by both rebel- and government-controlled FM stations.

Now on the brink of ending a tense period of militaristic partition following a 21-month civil war, Côte d'Ivoire is scheduled to hold in October 2006 its first national elections in over five years. But the peace process is bearing a strange fruit: the budding hate media. Fears are growing that as the elections draw near many in the Ivorian media will choose sides. Ultimately, an inflammatory partisan press will ensue, fanning a faint, yet easily provoked, political wildfire.

National reconciliation among the warring parties of Forces Nouvelles rebels in the north and the government-controlled south is constantly undermined by the recent wave of hate media, escalating political tensions and compounding the current humanitarian crisis. According to a report by the United Nations Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (UNOCI), since the beginning of the crisis at least 500,000 people have been internally displaced, half of them experienced a decline in health and education, and 23,000 civil servants have left their posts in various parts of the country.

The most successful effort at restoring normalcy came in April 2005 with a breakthrough negotiated settlement. Following three days of talks in Pretoria and bolstered by mediation sessions led by South African President Thabo Mbeki, all parties to the conflict concluded an accord calling for a definitive end to the civil war and for the creation of an immediate timetable for disarmament, demobilization and reunification of rebel groups. Today, the peace is still fragile and, although the hate speech of some Ivorian FM radio stations has not reached the genocidal tone of RTLM FM, calls to "hunt for whites" or remarks, such as "the country must be delivered from the evil ones", are far from encouraging.

In January 2006, a violent mass protest was triggered following an international working group's recommendation for changes to be made to Côte d'Ivoire's parliament. The United Nations participation in the group's meetings consequently led to false perception that it was "calling time on the Ivorian parliament". Local radio stations identified the world Organization as a force intent on violating Ivorian sovereignty, insulting the flag and seeking to rewrite the constitution.

In the western region of Giuglo, where there was a strong UN presence, these anti-UN sentiments ran highest. "What developed in January was a major setback and much more disturbing in a way, because there you had a local radio station actively inciting people to target both UN property and UN personnel in the region of Guiglo in the west. That spoke volumes about what can happen if push comes to shove, if the political stakes go up. In the end, people were killed and the UN had to pull out of Giuglo", said Chris Simpson, regional coordinator of the Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN Radio), which is an offshoot project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). There are over 13 "peace radio" projects in developing countries around the world, among them in Afghanistan, Angola, Kenya, Liberia and Sudan.

Being that Côte d'Ivoire is in such a difficult constitutional phase, where the term of office of President Laurent Koudou Gbagbo has officially expired in October 2005, but has been extended for a maximum of one year, and where parliamentary elections are continuously rescheduled, Mr. Simpson stressed that to keep the peace, the media must adamantly choose to maintain standard journalistic procedure-one of objectivity, professionalism and anti-rumour-mongering. "The local stations officially are not allowed to engage in politics; they are strictly barred, they have a kind of code of conduct that precludes them from broadcasting any kind of political material", he said. "The question you must ask is: 'To what extent do the political activist, particularly the Jeunes Patriotes, represent the will of the people?' They are very adept at manufacturing scares, very adept at mobilizing people at short notice and they certainly have funds and resources at their disposal, and they often use the media."

Since 2001, OCHA has been working with grass-roots radio stations in developing countries. Through IRIN Radio, it encourages local stations to cover humanitarian issues, including looking at conflicts, ethnic tensions, land disputes and HIV/AIDS, and to search for common ground within the community. "Ivorian journalists are not by any means a lost cause; there are a lot of capable journalists out there who want to address the real problems facing the country, but they just don't have the means to do it", Mr. Simpson explained. "Don't tar the whole of Ivorian radio sector with the same brush. You basically have fairly poor, underfunded stations, where journalists are demoralized. Often they don't get paid, in addition to a lack of training and resources."

In Côte d'Ivoire, as in many African countries, radio is the most popular media outlet. There are roughly 30 low-powered, non-commercial community radio stations in the country, including some run by the Evangelicals and the Catholic Church, which reach nearly 14 million people. Most war-torn regions have little or no access to alternative forms of media technology, such as the Internet. Instead, Ivorians heavily rely on radio as their primary source of information. "A lot of work needs to be done to convince the radio stations to play a responsible role. At the moment, it's not quite clear what role the local radio stations will play in the provinces, because officially they can't cover politics", Mr. Simpson said. "Despite that, there is a substantial number of Ivorian journalists who would consider themselves neutral, who don't have a political axe to grind and would like to see radio play a responsible role."

Still, on all sides of the negotiating table uncertainty persists, resulting in widespread international criticism and the drafting of a blacklist. Created by the UN Security Council under resolution 1572 (2004), the list includes 95 names of journalists, politicians and military officials who have sponsored or broadcast violent messages. In January 2005, it was sent to the International Criminal Court for review. In late 2004, Côte d'Ivoire was listed as number 149 out of 167 countries surveyed for an annual index of worldwide press freedom.

In addition to threats of being professionally ostracized or jailed, various media watchdog groups, among them Reporters Without Borders or Reporters sans frontières (RSF), have also kept abreast of the declining situation. "The media continues to be partisan media", said Leonard Vincent, head of the Africa Desk at RSF, stressing that although the Ivorian radio media has not explicitly called citizens to kill, there are similarities with Rwanda. "They prepare the mood for violence."

In response to Côte d'Ivoire's onslaught of hate media in mid-2004, UNOCI launched ONUCI-FM (95.3 FM), a peacekeeping radio programme aimed at "promoting peace, national reconciliation and cohesion, and providing information on the humanitarian situation". By December 2004, the programme had expanded to satellite; today, it reaches numerous outlying towns, even the rebel-held cities of Korhogo, Bouake and Man in the north. From a few huts in the centre of the UN Mission courtyard in Abidjan, ONUCI-FM broadcasts "peace messages" and provides sports and entertainment coverage and cultural music. With some 30 Ivorian journalists and technicians working at the station, it is able to reach over 4 million people.

The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations also operates radio stations in neighbouring Sierra Leone and is making arrangement for a comparable station in Liberia. In June 2006, the Ivorian National Council for Broadcast Communication or Conseil national de la communication audiovisuelle (CNCA) demanded that all ONUCI-FM operations be suspended due to allegations that it was a pirate station. In response, the station's spokesman, Jean Victor N'Kolo, told CNCA officials that Security Council resolution 1572 was enough authorization for them to continue broadcasting. "I really don't see what the problem is. There is a [UN] radio station for every peacekeeping operation. It exists in Sierra Leone and Liberia. It's meant to assist the peace process", he told Reuters news agency.

With such governmental restraints looming over ONUCI-FM and the on-air presence of both government- and rebel-group propaganda in Côte d'Ivoire, one is hard- pressed to come across unbiased news coverage. However, it is apparent that the country's peace and development will ironically depend more and more on the professional standards of its media. But the Ivorian civil society-university professors and teachers, religious and community leaders, businessmen, etc.-must also get involved. "The solutions have to lie with Ivorians themselves. A lot of different organizations have worked in Cote d'Ivoire and neighbouring countries, providing equipment, offering advice on codes of practice, cutting deals with media bosses", Mr. Simpson of IRIN Radio said. "Still, it is critical that Ivorians make their radio stations and newspapers accountable, and if necessary come down hard on those who engage in hate media and propaganda."