International Papers

First They Came for the Journalists

In Ivory Coast, press reaction to the killing of a French journalist by a policeman Tuesday mirrored the deep and dangerous rift between government supporters and backers of a rebel group that seized half the country more than a year ago. Partisan newspapers pushed their hard-line views in covering the murder of Jean Hélène, a veteran Africa correspondent for Radio France Internationale. Meanwhile, papers in France, the former colonial power, said the mowing down of a foreign journalist by a national police officer can only further undermine the already precarious standing of Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo. Le Figaroof Paris,under the headline, “The Murder of Jean-Hélène Puts Gbagbo in a Dilemma,” said the killing “could not come at a worse time for the [Ivorian] government.”

The murder has fueled a climate of tension in the capital, Abidjan, where Gbagbo supporters have long charged that the French press soft-pedals its coverage of atrocities allegedly committed by the rebels. The motive behind the shooting is unclear; Ivorian authorities are questioning the accused gunman, and French President Jacques Chirac, who was in nearby Niger at the time, has insisted on an immediate inquiry. Hélène was in his car just outside a police station in Abidjan, awaiting the release of opposition activists accused of plotting to assassinate Gbagbo, shortly before the policeman allegedly killed him. The two reportedly argued before the shooting took place. According to Le Monde, a military prosecutor who questioned the police officer declared that the shooting was intentional, but the official refused to call the incident an “assassination,” saying that it has not yet been established that the act was premeditated. “It is an isolated act that no one, a fortiori his superiors, understands.”

Still, opposition papers were quick to portray the killing as a deliberate move by the government. The opposition daily Le Nouveau Réveil, declared in a headline, “The Entire World Discovers the Face of a Regime of Terror.” It added: “Since he [Gbagbo] came to power, blood flows and flows and flows. As if human blood were for this regime what gasoline is for a car.” The paper asked, “Who had an interest in our never again hearing the voice of Hélène?” An editorial in the opposition daily Le Patriote said the policeman in question, to commit such an extreme act, “must have been assured of total impunity.” The paper charged that forces of the government believe in law by Kalashnikov and that “they have the right to exterminate all who would contradict Gbagbo.”

Pro-government newspapers went on the defensive. In Abidjan these days, “pro-government” is synonymous with “anti-French.” The independent but Gbagbo-leaning daily Le Temps denounced President Chirac, who suggested that the murder is a product of unrestrained “hate and aggression” within Gbagbo’s camp. The paper said Chirac used the journalist’s death “to set himself up as a champion in the fight against racism,” then went on to lay out what it sees as a long legacy of racism on the part of the French government. The paper added that France “must ask herself if the upheaval that we are currently experiencing is not a reflection of the failure of France’s colonial and especially post-colonial policies, which have impoverished the continent.”

The government-owned daily Fraternité Matin also challenged the French take on the recent killing: “Can’t we consider the monstrous assassination by the policeman as an isolated act like that of the [Washington] sniper?” Citing the killing of two French soldiers by rebels earlier this year, the paper asked why France did not react with similar charges of racism then. “While we share the pain caused by the cowardly and odious killing of Jean Hélène, certain Ivorians do not understand France’s selective indignation.”

France has caught criticism from both sides for its role in the Ivorian conflict. Since a failed coup in September 2002, about 4,000 French troops have been stationed on the front line between the government-controlled south and the rebel-held north. While the French forces were widely seen as preventing the rebels from advancing into the capital, backers of the Gbagbo government claim France supports the rebels. Meanwhile, the rebels accuse France of propping up Gbagbo, who came to power in 2000 in an election the international community regarded as deeply flawed.

Papers in other African countries have denounced Jean Hélène’s murder as a blow to African democracy and press freedom. Le Phare of Kinshasa said: Through this assassination, the entire continent “reminds the world that we still have a long way to go” on the road to democracy, free debate of ideas, and respect for human rights. “When politicians … have things to hide, they would like journalists to shut up or at least be complicit in their offenses,” the paper said, adding that African rulers and “their Western sponsors” must ask themselves why the French journalist was killed.