From the January 2004 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 51, No. 1)


Côte d’Ivoire: Death of a Journalist

Odinaka Anaele, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire

The killing of French radio journalist Jean Helene by a policeman in Abidjan on Oct. 21 renewed fears about the country’s instability and ignited a war of words between the African nation and its former colonial master, France.

Helene, a veteran reporter for Radio France Internationale, was gunned down while waiting to interview 11 opposition politicians who had been detained for four days on suspicion of plotting to murder members of the government.

While outside police headquarters, Helene got into an argument with a police sergeant who, according to eyewitness accounts, disappeared into the building, then returned and shot the correspondent with an AK-47 rifle.

The murder confirmed fears about instability in Côte d’Ivoire at a time when the country’s fragile reconciliation process was showing new cracks. In September, ministers representing the main rebel group, the New Forces, walked out of a coalition government that was established in April following a French-brokered peace accord. The ministers complained that President Laurent Gbagbo was not delegating sufficient power to the government of national reconciliation headed by Prime Minister Seydou Diarra.

While some commentators speculated that Helene’s murder was an act of retaliation by Gbagbo loyalists—who have accused France of giving too much support to the rebels—others saw it as an attempt to intimidate journalists. But all agreed that it was an ominous development.

“The Ivorian crisis has taken a dangerous twist with the assassination of Jean Helene,” wrote Adama Kone in 24 Heures d’Information Justes (Oct. 23). “This act, far from being an accident, presents all the characteristics of a premeditated act.”

“Whose turn is it next?” asked Videl Kouadio in Le Jour (Oct. 23). He answered, “It is only the killers of press freedom who have hatched the cynical plan of killing certain journalists that can respond to this piercing question.” In the same issue, Octave Boyou wrote, “If one is not afraid to open fire at Jean Helene, working for one of the biggest radio [station]s in the world, whose country represents everything for Côte d’Ivoire, what will happen to the rest of us...?”

Gbagbo reacted to the killing by firing the chief of the national police force and opening an inquiry into Helene’s death. During a visit to Niger on Oct. 23, French President Jacques Chirac told reporters that Ivorian leaders “should come to their senses,” a comment that inflamed anti-French sentiment among Gbagbo loyalists. The next day, Gbagbo told a group of foreign journalists that Helene had died because “This is war and in wartime people get passionate.”

As the inquiry into Helene’s killing opened, Ghana and Nigeria were leading efforts to restore peace in the country. On Nov. 11, a summit of  West African leaders concluded in Accra, Ghana, with a call for U.N. peacekeepers to be sent to Côte d’Ivoire.  The New Forces were absent from the meeting, and on Nov. 13, news broke of an attempt to assassinate New Forces  leader Guillaume Soro.

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