Freedom Neruda

Struggles for press freedom in West Africa

The offending article was tucked away on page 10 of La Voie, an opposition daily newspaper in Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa. The piece carried a provocative headline: “Il maudit l’ASEC”—“He jinxed ASEC.” The article’s contents were more provocative—and criminally insulting under Ivorian law.

It declared that by attending the All-Africa championship soccer match in Abidjan, the commercial capital of Côte d’Ivoire, then Ivorian president, Henri Konan Bédié, had brought bad luck to the host (and losing) team, the ASEC Mimosas. The article recalled and poked fun at Bédié’s campaign literature from the year before. Bédié had boasted that his presidency had brought good fortune to Côte d’Ivoire, a former French colony that styled itself an island of political stability in an otherwise troubled corner of the world.

The article about Bédié’s jinxing the country’s soccer team would lead to a jail term and ultimately to a measure of international fame for its author, Roch d’Assomption Tiéti, who writes under the nom de plume Freedom Neruda. He chose the name because he found inspiring the work of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

The case of Freedom Neruda is in several respects emblematic of the quiet courage of journalists in French-speaking West Africa, a region where a surprisingly resilient—yet little recognized—ethos of independent journalism has emerged and taken hold since the early 1990s. Hundreds of newspapers published independently of government control have appeared across the region. More recently, scores of privately owned radio stations have taken to the airwaves.

To be sure, casualty rates for the emergent news media have been substantial. Most of the newspapers have failed, usually falling victim to a combination of official crackdowns, revenue shortfalls, material shortages, and inadequate professional training and development programs. But many titles have defied the odds to establish themselves as features of a robust and increasingly pluralist media landscape.

The astonishing change in the region’s media scene was set in motion by a broad-based wave of democratization that embraced much of sub-Saharan Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s, coinciding with but largely unrelated to the political upheaval that swept Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. While the emergence of news media independent of government control was dependent upon the wider process of political liberalization, the development and vitality of those media are attributable primarily to journalists, such as Freedom Neruda, who, for reasons including the limited circulation of their publications, are little known outside the region. Their searching, sometimes-partisan, independent-minded journalism has had the effect of expanding open consideration of issues and policies in countries where debate and dissenting views had been severely restricted or even forbidden by single-party regimes. In some cases, newspapers have been contributing factors in the repudiation of national leaders whose democratic credentials proved thin, dubious or illusory.

The development of independent-minded journalism has not been without its flaws and shortcomings, however. Newspapers independent of government control have been known to be swaggering in their assertiveness and shrill in their partisanship. The founders of La Voie described themselves as “animated by a will comparable to that of the Vietnamese in their war against the Americans.” Though hyperbolic, the reference is a revealing example of the earnestness that has been associated with the emergent independent press in West Africa. More troubling has been corruption of journalists, usually in the form of payoffs from news sources. Accepting payoffs in exchange for flattering or favorable articles has proved an enduring and recurring problem in many countries, one driven by a combination of meager salaries, an uncertain sense of ethical boundaries and limited professional training programs. To confront such practices, journalists in Côte d’Ivoire and in Benin have established self-regulating monitoring or watchdog panels called observatoires, which meet periodically to call attention to lapses in professional conduct. The effectiveness of such panels is open to challenge, but the Ivorian observatoire appears to have achieved a broad measure of support among journalists since its founding in the mid-1990s.

But by far the most severe threat to the region’s independent-minded journalists is the never-distant prospect that their reporting will lead to harassment, intimidation and even imprisonment. Nearly all West African states have conducted multiparty elections since 1990, but only Benin and Mali were, at the end of the decade, home to a free press, according to quantitative rankings compiled by New York-based Freedom House. Journalists have been jailed or newspapers have been suspended in nearly every country where an independent press has emerged in French-speaking West Africa—Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Niger and Togo. In the five years after La Voie’s founding in 1991, no fewer than a half dozen of the newspaper’s editorial staff were sentenced to prison for their reporting.

The article that led to the jailing of Freedom Neruda appeared in La Voie in December 1995. A companion piece, written by Emmanuel Koré, suggested the president should have stayed home the night of the soccer championship match. While the articles were scarcely the most inflammatory to have appeared in La Voie (the name of which was changed in 1998 to Notre Voie, or Our Way), they did pose direct challenges to the stature and even the authority of Bédié, the head of state. As such, they represented challenges to the state itself.

Freedom Neruda, Koré and the newspaper’s publication director, Abou Drahamane Sangaré, were arrested, quickly brought to trial on charges of insulting the head of state, pronounced guilty and sentenced to two years in prison. For offenses so trivial, the penalties were exceptional, and their severity stirred an international outcry. Amnesty International, for example, said it appeared that the Ivorian legal system was “being used … to stifle the opposition press and restrict its right to freedom of expression.”

Ivorian officials sought to justify jailing Freedom Neruda and his colleagues by insisting that the head of state is the embodiment of national unity and dignity and must be insulated from unflattering and objectionable commentary. What’s more, said then-minister of communications, Danièle Boni-Claverie: “Our press is sick. We have to cure it of the sickness so that it does not contaminate the others.”

Freedom Neruda, Koré, and Sangaré were ordered to serve their sentences at the MACA, the French-language acronym for the forbidding house of corrections in Abidjan. Cholera and other diseases are known to run rampant at times at the MACA, a grim place built to house 1,500 prisoners. By the mid-1990s, the inmate population had swollen to more than 5,400.

Freedom Neruda, Koré and Sangaré served half of their two-year sentences and were quietly released at the New Year 1997. Much as other journalists who have been jailed in the region, they emerged saying they had not been cowed by the ordeal of imprisonment, that their views had only grown stronger. Within 10 months of his release, Freedom Neruda was on his way to the United States and a black-tie dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, where he accepted an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Freedom Neruda was one of six journalists so honored in 1997, and he noted later that whenever during his stay in the United States he recounted the circumstances that led to imprisonment—how he was jailed for insulting the president—his “audience was simply dumbfounded” that satiric commentary could be deemed a crime. (In part because of the circumstances of his jailing, Freedom Neruda was named in 2000 one of the 50 “World Press Freedom Heroes” by the International Press Institute.)

While extraordinary in its details, Freedom Neruda’s case reflected the hazards that confront many independent-minded journalists in French-speaking West Africa. Not infrequently do the region’s journalists gain a measure of regional recognition for standing up to repression, for serving time in jail or for going to court to answer allegations of defamatory reporting. Freedom Neruda’s counterparts in quiet courage are many in French-speaking West Africa and include Diégou Bailly, the publication director of Le Jour, which is perhaps the most sophisticated independent daily newspaper in Côte d’Ivoire; Maurice Chabi, the publication director of Les Echos du Jour, a leading daily in Benin, a Pennsylvania-sized country that has established itself the region’s leader in democratic governance; Pius N. Njawé, the often-prosecuted publication director of Le Messager, which has been called “the most confrontational” newspaper in Cameroon; and Mamadou Oumar Ndiaye, publisher of an aggressive weekly newspaper in Senegal, Le Témoin.

The laws under which Freedom Neruda and others have been prosecuted—measures that criminalize insults and other criticism of heads of state—do not vary markedly across the region. And they have their roots in French colonial rule, which tolerated little criticism of authorities. In many cases, postcolonial West African states have modified only slightly the restrictive French model. With the notable exception of what is now Benin, independent-minded journalism was rarely seen until the closing years of French rule in West Africa.

It is thus mildly ironic that France also is the most obvious and most direct model for the independent press in francophone West Africa. The region’s newspapers in some cases are styled after those in Paris. Bailly’s Le Jour resembles the left-of-center Parisian daily Libération in tone and typography. And Bailly is one of many West African journalists who have studied in France. (Freedom Neruda, who was born in 1956, received a degree in sciences at the University of Abidjan in 1983 and taught mathematics for a while before entering journalism in 1988 as a trainee copy editor.)

The limited historical legacy in French-speaking West Africa of expressing dissent through the press makes the emergence of an ethos of independent journalism all the more striking. Although the trajectory of press development in the region has not been without reverses and embarrassments, the broad trends are encouraging: the independent press in many countries has moved in recent years from weekly and monthly publication to daily periodicity. Numerous independent newspapers appear daily in Benin and Côte d’Ivoire, for example—before 1990, there were no such newspapers in either country.

Another trend has been the deepening recognition of the value of independent journalism in promoting respect for democratic practices. The independent press in Benin undoubtedly contributed to the popular rejection of Nicéphore Soglo, who had been chosen president in one of West Africa’s first, and fairest, elections of the 1990s. Soglo, however, soon demonstrated his impatience with the untidiness and the rough-and-tumble of multiparty politics. Within a year of his election in 1991, newspapers were openly questioning whether Soglo possessed the temperament and administrative acumen required to manage Benin’s fractious political culture.

Soglo proved extraordinarily sensitive to criticism, depicting himself as the target of printed attacks that were unmatched in vehemence anywhere in the world. He challenged the scruples of the country’s independent press and took to upbraiding Beninese journalists, usually in telephone calls in which he remonstrated about the coverage he received. The president’s telephone calls became so frequent that one journalist remarked, “We could write a book called Soglo Online.”

He also invited criticism in his high-handed relations with the National Assembly. He announced cabinet changes without first consulting with the speaker of the parliament, as the Beninese constitution required. Former supporters in the legislature accused him of treating the National Assembly as a rubber stamp and indulging in a “solitary exercise” in wielding power.

By the time Soglo stood for re-election in 1996, his credentials as a reform-minded democrat were widely questioned—a development that was attributable in measure to the sustained scrutiny of the independent press. The newspapers had withstood pressure from Soglo and his supporters to soften or alter their reporting and, by revealing the president as a dubious democrat, helped prepare for his rejection at the polls.

Soglo finished first in the opening round of voting in March 1996 but failed to gain a majority. Soglo’s opponents rallied around Benin’s former military ruler, a born-again Christian named Mathieu Kérékou—the man whom Soglo defeated in the 1991 elections. This time, Kérékou won the runoff.

Soglo raged at the outcome, appealing to the Constitutional Court to overturn the result. He described himself as the victim of “a vast conspiracy” and of a “national and international media lynching” to deny him a second term. In the end, Soglo’s appeal was rejected. Benin peacefully changed chief executives for the second time in many presidential elections—outcomes unprecedented in postcolonial West Africa.

That independent journalists can, through persistent and critical reporting, present compelling evidence of flawed or failed political leadership was demonstrated anew in Côte d’Ivoire in the late 1990s. By then, Henri Konan Bédié, the Ivorian president and Freedom Neruda’s jailer, had become more autocratic. Democratic rule in Côte d’Ivoire seemed more chimerical than ever. Bédié had won passage of a constitutional amendment, prolonging presidential terms to seven from five years.

But as the campaigning began for presidential elections scheduled in 2000, a formidable rival to Bédié loomed. He was Alassane D. Ouattara, formerly an Ivorian prime minister and senior official at the International Monetary Fund.

Bédié turned to a variety of repressive measures to block Ouattara’s candidacy, claiming notably that he failed to meet nationality requirements to stand for the Ivorian presidency. When Ouattara produced documents showing that he and his parents were of Ivorian nationals, Bédié’s government ordered his arrest on the grounds the documents were forged. Meanwhile, 11 leaders of Ouattara's party had been sent to prison following a demonstration against what they said was biased reporting at the state-run broadcast outlets.

Notre Voie, Le Jour and the country’s other nonofficial newspapers reported closely on the deepening political drama, thus contributing to a widening recognition of Bédié’s intolerance. The president’s repudiation finally came not at the polls but in the country’s first-ever coup d’état. The Ivorian military seized power on Christmas Eve 1999, promising a return to democratic rule through free and fair elections. Although such promises are commonplace in the aftermath of military takeovers, politicking in Côte d’Ivoire almost immediately resumed in earnest.

Bédié, meanwhile, took refuge at the French embassy in Abidjan and later was allowed to leave the country with a small entourage. He visited Togo and Nigeria in a halfhearted, ultimately futile attempt to rally support from other West Africa states. He retreated to Paris, suggesting he might present himself in the elections that the military promised but had not yet scheduled as of March 2000.

Perhaps as a measure of respect for the Ivorian press, the military authorities made no move to silence or repress the independent newspapers, which overwhelmingly welcomed Bédié’s ouster. Notre Voie, for example, hailed the coup as a case of the “gods [having] offered the Côte d’Ivoire a chance to make a new start, an opportunity few countries are accorded.” (The military rulers demonstrated little tolerance for another setback in Ivorian soccer, however. After the national team was eliminated in the first round of the 2000 African Cup of Nations tournament, the players were taken to a military camp for three days of workouts.)

For Freedom Neruda, the Christmas Eve coup meant that he had outlasted his nemesis and jailer. About a month afterward, he was promoted to assistant editor in chief, the second-ranking editorial post at Notre Voie.

But he resisted gloating about Bédié’s demise. Rather than celebrating the fall of the man who had sent him to the MACA, Freedom Neruda wrote about the importance of reconciliation. He expressed his “profound sense of pity” for senior officials of Bédié’s government who were arrested and briefly detained after the coup. Freedom Neruda described them as “mortal and vulnerable men who some people had believed to be demi-gods.”

In any case, score-settling was unnecessary, Freedom Neruda wrote. “The people have no need to avenge themselves. To the contrary, they should stand above that and offer a pardon to those [officials] who failed to understand that no star shines forever.”

Besides, he wrote, “What good does it do to take shots at the ambulance of a sick man who is in an irreversible coma? Let’s learn to show some pity.”

W. Joseph Campbell, a former wire service reporter in West Africa, teaches journalism at American University. He is author of The Emergent Independent Press in Benin and Côte d’Ivoire: From Voice of the State to Advocate of Democracy.

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