HRD sentenced to five years in prison, six journalists handed down hefty fines


Court sentences human rights defender to five years in prison

On 12th March 2020, the court of Toumodi sentenced human rights defender and journalism student Konan Yao Hubert to a prison sentence of five years and a fine of three million CFA francs (4,995 USD) on charges of 'incitement and disturbance of public order' and 'assault and battery of gendarmes on duty'. As reported previously on the Monitor, the HRD was arrested on 4th August 2019 at a bus station in Djékanou, in relation to a protest he assisted in organising a day earlier, on 3rd August 2019, of the N'da-kouassikro community against the opening of a gold mine operated by Mondial Mines.

In a press statement, coordinator of the movement No Vox, Yvonne Toba, said on 4th February 2020 that she had received threatening calls and threats via Facebook after the release of the report 'Résister face à l’extractivisme : la communauté de N’dakouassikro revendique ses droits' ('Resisting Extractivism: The N’dakouassikro Community Claims Its Rights'), and for her advocacy.

Peaceful Assembly

Protest against constitutional amendments: several pro-democracy activists briefly detained

Ten members of the pro-democracy movement Tournons la Page- Côte d'Ivoire were detained on 11th March 2020 while protesting against the approval of constitutional amendments by the country's National Assembly. The protesters, who gathered in Abidjan's suburb of Yopougon, said that the changes to the country's fundamental law were made without any consultation of citizens, and were distributing flyers when the police intervened and arrested the protesters. They were released a couple of hours later. 

Just two days earlier in the capital's district of Abobo, supporters of the presidential party Rassemblement des houphouëtistes pour la démocratie et la paix (RHDP) marched following president Ouattara's announcement that he would not be seeking a third term in the country's upcoming presidential elections in October 2020. According to local media, the march was not authorised but was free from police interruption.

Constitutional amendments were adopted by the National Assembly on 17th March 2020. The amendments include: the vice-president will from now on be appointed by the president, instead of being elected at the same time as the president; the continuity of the National Assembly in case of an inability to organise elections and judicial reforms. 

Religious gathering banned

In a letter dated 17th February 2020, the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralisation denied permission for a religious gathering by the religious organisation Ançar Dine Côte d'Ivoire citing security grounds for the ban. The organisation planned two days of prayer under the theme 'Islam, peace and development' from 22nd February at the National Sport Complex in Treichville, Abidjan, to celebrate Eid-El-Maulud, the birth of the prophet Mohamed. 

Protest against COVID-19 facility

According to news reports, clashes between police and protesters occurred on 6th March 2020 in Abidjan's suburb of Yopougon, with protesters reportedly throwing stones and burning tyres, and police officers using tear gas to disperse the crowd. About 20 people were arrested, according to the Minister of Security. A day earlier, on 5th March 2020, residents of the suburb attacked and destroyed a facility set up by authorities to screen and test residents of the neighbourhood for COVID-19. The facility was perceived by residents as a COVID-19 treatment centre. 


Fears over deterioration of press freedom as six journalists ordered to pay heavy fines

On 3rd March 2020, police officers detained two journalists of the newspaper Le Temps over an article they published on alleged corruption by high-level officials. On the same day, Yacouba Gbande and Barthelemy Tehin were ordered by a court in Abidjan to pay a fine of five million CFA francs (8,325 USD) each for 'undermining the honour and respect of several members of the government'. 

Several weeks later on 25th March 2020, journalists Cissé Sindou and Marc Dossa of the pro-opposition newspaper Générations Nouvelles, were both fined five million CFA francs (8,325 USD) for 'publishing false news'. The newspaper published an article claiming that there were two cases of COVID-19 in the prison of Abidjan, a claim denied by authorities. 

On 31st March 2020, the Court of First Instance of Abidjan fined the editors of two newspapers, Vamara Coulibaly of the independent Soir Info and Paul Koffi of the pro-opposition Le Nouveau Réveil to a fine of 2.5 million CFA francs (4,163 USD) for the 'spreading of false information'. Both newspapers published a statement by the group of lawyers representing Alain Lobognon, a member of parliament with the political opposition, in which they decried the 'difficult conditions' of their client's detention. Lobognon was arrested alongside several other members of the political opposition on 23rd December 2019. Assane Diagne of Reporters without Borders (RSF) commented

Convicting journalists just for publishing a letter written by lawyers is nonsensical and completely unwarranted. Aside from its absurd character, this latest in a series of recent fines on journalists is a serious press freedom violation after several years of significant progress in Côte d’Ivoire."

The wave of swift court judgements and exorbitant fines on these six journalists was met with criticism from media and press freedom organisations. In a statement, eleven national press unions accused the public prosecutor of abuse of power and of targeting mainly media outlets close to the political opposition. They also highlighted the negative financial impact of these hefty fines on the newspaper in a fragile time for media outlets, who are experiencing the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Journalist summoned and interrogated over a Facebook post

On 5th March 2020, police officers in Port-Bouët, a suburb of Abidjan, summoned and questioned Kacou Monique, a journalist for radio station ATM and secretary general of the National Union of Journalists of Côte d’Ivoire (UNJCI), for about two hours over a Facebook post claiming a shortage of oxygen at the Port-Bouët hospital, and this could be linked to the death of the journalist Bénédicte Goumegou, claims denied by the Ministry of Health and Public Hygiene. She was released with a warning to 'avoid posting false information'.