Cote d’Ivoire ALERT: Journalist murdered

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) is deeply distressed by the cold blooded murder of Jean Hélene, Cote d’Ivoire correspondent of the Paris-based Radio France Internationale (RFI) foreign news station. Jean Hélene (a pseudonym for Christian Baldenberger) was allegedly slain by police sergeant Dago Cyrille Théodore of the VIP security unit (BSP) at about 20 hours GMT on Tuesday, October 21, 2003.

According to MFWA sources in Cote d’Ivoire, the 48-year-old RFI correspondent was waiting at the premises of the DGPN (the police headquarters) to scoop an interview with some 11 supporters of the opposition RDR party of former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, who were due to be freed from custody. The RDA activists were arrested and detained incommunicado on October 17, 2003, on suspicion of planning to assassinate President Laurent Gbagbo and key members of his government.

While Jean Hélene was waiting at the DGPN, police officer Dago accosted him and asked to know his identity and mission. He dutifully obliged. The police officer then left to consult with the director of the General Intelligence Unit, commissioner Djablé, who confirmed that Jean was, indeed, an RFI correspondent. However, according to eyewitnesses, the police officer returned moments later, and without provocation, brusquely gunned down Jean with an AK-47 rifle. He was slain at close range, with two bullets to his left temple.

The deteriorating political climate in Cote d’Ivoire has, in recent weeks, engendered a sense of resentment and acrimony among the politically polarized media in the country. On October 9, some “young patriots” led by Charles Blé Goudé and the proprietor of the daily Le National, supporters of the Gbagbo government, are alleged to have instigated a boycott of some newspapers, including the dailies Le Patriote, 24 Heures, Le Libéral, Le Font, and Le Jour Plus, all perceived to be aligned to the RDR; and the daily Le Nouveau Réveil, said to be close to the PDCI-RDA of former president Henri Konan Bédié. These papers suddenly disappeared from the newsstands in certain suburbs of Abidjan, especially in Yopougon and San Pédro, strongholds of the Ivorian Popular Party (PPI) of President Gbabo.

The foreign media in the country have also been the target of some xenophobic verbal attack since the start of the Ivorian crisis in September 2002. Some nationalist extremists have perceived the foreign media, particularly the RFI, to be sympathetic towards the rebels in the war.

The MFWA has, in April and August this year, organized a meeting and a workshop on media capacity building and professional ethics for journalists in Cote d’Ivoire. This was an effort to augment the capacity of the media to facilitate the process of consolidating peace and national reconciliation in the country. We are disappointed that ironically, a member of the media fraternity, the purveyors of rule of law, human rights and democracy, has been so tragically murdered in the line of duty.

While condoling with the family of Jean Hélene and the RFI, the MFWA calls upon the government of President Gbabo to ensure a thorough and independent investigation of this crime and to bring the perpetrator(s) to justice in the most exemplary manner.

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