Côte d’Ivoire: A strike away from igniting violence amidst a faltering peace process

As Côte d’Ivoire gears up for October elections, postponed from 2005, the country is on a knife’s edge with fears that a renewed eruption of violence will destroy any progress towards political reconciliation. So-called “hate media” is playing on people’s fears, stoking the violence and is a major threat to peace and reconciliation. Cote IvoireThe Story
As the world marked the twelfth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide this April, some media reports in Côte d’Ivoire seem frighteningly reminiscent of how the media had been used by leaders to trigger devastating acts of violence. Following a series of coups, dating back to 1999, a September 2002 troop mutiny in Côte d’Ivoire escalated into a full-scale revolt, as northerners rebelled against southern dominance, with thousands killed in fighting between rebels of the Forces Nouvelles and the Government. Although fighting has stopped, the country remains divided between the government-held south and the rebel-controlled north. In 2004, the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) was set up to monitor the ceasefire and support the implementation of peace agreements, holding together a shaky peace.

The virulent targeting of political opponents in the national press and television, as well as on national and local radio, has long been a feature of the Ivorian media scene. Journalists, struggling to maintain their independence, often fall victim in a country where partisan politics and resorting to hate messaging are commonplace. Although the media environment is ostensibly free, in the last few years, journalists have been victims of harassment, threats, arrest and even murder. Journalists enjoy little editorial autonomy, with political affiliations often dictating coverage.

During a February 2006 visit, the UN Emergency Coordinator Jan Egeland said that civilians in this country were among the most unprotected in the world. He called for immediate action “when hate media in a Rwandan style asks for attacks against defenceless civilians, for minorities being chopped up and for international humanitarian organizations to be attacked, people should be brought to justice.” Without the possibility of meaningful and severe sanctions against those engaging in inflammatory messages, hate media will continue to be a serious threat to peace and national reconciliation.

The Context

  • Côte d’Ivoire gained independence in 1960 and enjoyed several decades of economic growth and unity, gaining a reputation as an African success story. Democracy was introduced in the 1990s, but disaffection among some groups resulted in a series of coups which led to full-fledged civil war by 2002. A peace deal brokered by France was reached in 2003 but this shaky peace was not consolidated.
  • In 2004, UNOCI set up its own radio station to counter the effect of inflammatory propaganda and messages of hate. Initially available in Abidjan, the station has extended its reach to cover rebel-held towns in the north. In December 2004, a new Press Law was adopted which provides the means to sanction poor journalistic practices and inculcate journalistic ethics.
  • Charles Konan Banny was appointed interim Prime Minister in December 2005. His nomination was supported by African mediators and the UN as likely to move forward Côte d’Ivoire’s stalled peace process. He faces difficult tasks, including disarming rebel forces and pro-government militias, identification of voters and organizing elections by 31 October.
  • In January 2006, UN forces and property came under attack by members of a political group, the “Young Patriots”, following which international staff were temporarily withdrawn. Even more alarming, these attacks were incited in some locales by militia and prefecture leaders who took over local radio stations and used them to air hate messages that encouraged the destruction. The Security Council has imposed sanctions on two youth leaders and one rebel commander. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Pierre Schori, has warned that, “Preaching violence is tantamount to working for the failure of the peace process.”
  • Secretary-General Kofi Annan has condemned the resort to hate media and demanded that all parties and leaders desist from such acts. The Security Council called for sanctions on those who would incite violence and hatred, including by resort to the media.
  • The Secretary-General has flagged the preparation of elections and the role of media as outstanding current issues. Concrete and dynamic action needs to be taken to begin implementing the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programme, to dismantle the militia, redeploy State authority, identify voters and prepare for the elections.
  • A report released by OCHA on 27 April shows an estimated 700,000 persons have been displaced since the beginning of the current crisis in 2002 when an aborted coup against President Laurent Gbagbo led to civil war. Ninety per cent of those persons are living with other families in five large urban areas, putting severe economic strain on many of their hosts, the report says. Additionally, the report shows that 50 per cent of those displaced say their health situation has worsened, while 30 per cent of displaced children lack the means to attend school.