Posted on November 19, 2004

Media Egging On Ivory Coast Mobs

Alexandra Zavis, AP, Nov. 18

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — As club-wielding mobs surged through Ivory Coast’s largest city hunting for foreigners, national figures urged them on: “Rise up against French imperialism.” “Sever the umbilical cord.” “If I find my French man, I will eat him.”

The hatred broadcast on television and radio — even cell phone text messages — poured out incendiary viciousness not heard since Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, U.N. officials and Western diplomats say.

The hate messages were banned by U.N. Security Council decree this week, but the government defends them as the cries of a people under attack.

“We are at war,” President Laurent Gbagbo told The Associated Press. “They want us to behave in the middle of a war as if we were on our way to the opera.”

A sudden, still unexplained government airstrike that killed nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker in the rebel-held north set off a bloody showdown between Gbagbo’s administration and the country’s former colonial ruler.

Within hours of the Nov. 6 attack, French troops destroyed Ivory Coast’s tiny air force, seized control of the international airport and took up positions at key points in Abidjan, the southern commercial center of what once was West Africa’s most prosperous and peaceful country.

Thousands of Gbagbo supporters, the same “Young Patriots” who swept him to power in a 2000 rebellion against the former junta, spilled into the streets, urged on by state-run Ivorian Radio Television, known as RTI.

Mobs ransacked foreign-owned businesses and homes and several European women reportedly were raped, prompting France and others to evacuate more than 9,000 expatriates.

As the crowds rampaged, RTI broadcast patriotic songs, footage of bloodied demonstrators allegedly killed by French troops and relentless appeals by politicians, preachers and Gbagbo loyalists to defend the nation against “settlers” and “imperialists.”

“We must sever the umbilical cord and rise up against the foreign dictate,” one Young Patriot said in an often-repeated message on RTI. French President Jacques Chirac is “inhabited by the spirit of Satan,” an evangelical preacher told viewers.

Text messages popped up on cell phones urging “Vigilance!” against France and “Unleash the forces.”

“At one moment, I really thought I was in Rwanda,” said one Western diplomat who was serving in that central African nation a decade ago when Rwandan radio urged ethnic Hutus to “exterminate the cockroaches.”

When Rwanda’s slaughter was over, more than 500,000 minority Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were dead; a U.N. war crimes tribunal has convicted Rwandan media executives for their part in fueling the killings.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan reminded Ivory Coast authorities last week that they, too, could be held accountable under international law. On Monday, the U.N. Security Council, backed by Gbagbo’s fellow African leaders, passed a resolution that included a demand for an immediate end to hate speech in state media.

RTI officials remained defiant Thursday.

“So people want a country that is at war to stifle public opinion?” RTI director Jean Paul Dahily said in an interview. “It is not the journalists who are saying these things, it is the people.”

Through a succession of coups, ethnic clashes and rebellions since 1999, Ivory Coast governments — and their opponents — have vigorously used the media to rally support.

On Nov. 5, the day Gbagbo abandoned a year-old cease-fire and unleashed three days of airstrikes on rebels, gangs of Young Patriots trashed four opposition newspaper offices. Two others shut down on their own. British Broadcasting Corp., Radio France International and Voice of America were knocked off the air.

Government soldiers occupied RTI’s headquarters and locked out the station’s director, who had been appointed by a rebel communications minister in a power-sharing Cabinet formed under the truce accord. Dahily, a Gbagbo ally, took charge.

“Radio and television are a weapon of the state at a time of war,” Dahily said at his office in a molding compound where dozens of Gbagbo supporters maintain a round-the-clock guard, spurred on by preachers and musicians who come to entertain them.

As violence subsided this week, RTI’s broadcasts gave way to appeals for “love, peace, tolerance and forgiveness.”

But the station also continues to warn its viewers: “Remain vigilant.”