Freedom Neruda, Cote d'Ivoire
World Press Freedom Hero (Honoured in 2000)
Born Tiéti Roch d’Assomption Aug. 15, 1956, in Duékoué, Côte d’Ivoire, Freedom Neruda was inspired by the writings of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and took his name to symbolize his ideals. Freedom Neruda demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the principles of free expression despite the persistent efforts of President Henri Konan Bédié to silence La Voie’s critical coverage of the government. Neruda and his colleagues at La Voie were repeatedly subjected to excessive fines, physical attacks, arrests and charges of “insulting the dignity of the head of state.”
After graduating from the University of Abidjan, Neruda taught mathematics at a private high school. He began his journalism career in 1988 as a copy editor with the daily Ivoir’ Soir. Later he worked as an investigative reporter with La Chronique du Soir and then with La Voie. As managing editor, Neruda turned La Voie (now called Notre Voie) into the country’s best-selling independent newspaper. In October 1995 the editorial offices of La Voie were mysteriously destroyed by a fire bomb. Before that, Neruda and his colleagues were routinely hauled into court to face defamation charges and subjected to other forms of harassment by the Bédié government.
Under Bédié, Côte d’Ivoire’s human rights record was abysmal. Journalists in particular were detained without trial for long periods. The Bédié government restricted freedom of expression and did not tolerate what it considered insults or attacks on the honor of the country’s highest officials. A law enacted in 1991 authorized the state to prosecute people who insult government officials or offices for criminal libel, punishable by up to two years in prison.
Neruda’s troubles under the Bédié government escalated in December 1995, when La Voie published his satirical article, “He Brought Bad Luck to the ASEC,” which suggested that President Bédié’s attendance at the African Champions Cup final may have jinxed Ivory Coast’s defeated soccer team. The article poked fun at the president’s election campaign slogan, which had proclaimed that Bédié was good luck for the country.
On January 2, 1996, Neruda was arrested on charges of seditious libel as a result of the article. Police had been searching for him since the arrest of his colleagues, La Voie’s publisher, Abou Drahamane Sangaré, and reporter Emmanuel Koré, 12 days earlier. The three journalists were sentenced to two years in prison for “offending the head of state,” and La Voie was fined three million Central African francs (CFA, or US$6,000) and banned for three months. On Jan. 3 La Voie began publishing under a new name, L’Alternative, but resumed publishing under its original name in April 1996, when the ban was lifted. When President Bédié promised in a televised statement to pardon the three journalists if they agreed to withdraw their appeal to the Supreme Court, they rejected the offer. “Freedom at any price is not essential,” one of their lawyers commented, and said that the journalists would prefer the path of justice to follow its normal course. On Nov. 28 their final appeal was turned down by the supreme court and Neruda and his two colleagues served a year in jail before they were quietly released on Jan. 1, 1997.
The harassment of La Voie continued unabated after the journalists’ release. On Feb. 4, 1997, Felix Teha Dessrait, a journalist with the daily, was assaulted by police officers inside a police station, where he had gone to investigate the arrest of the leader of a student organization, FESCI. Another La Voie reporter, Daniel Opeli, was badly beaten by police on May 15, 1997, as he was covering a FESCI meeting. Aline Lago, La Voie’s correspondent in the town of Guiglo, was taken into custody at Man prison, 300 miles northwest of Abidjan in July 1997, and charged with contempt of court. He was released on bail on Aug. 4.
In October 1998 the Abidjan offices of Notre Voie were forcibly entered and burglarized by three armed persons. The attackers stripped and beat the night guard and removed files that documented corruption involving senior government officials, but telephones, computers and fax machines were untouched.
Côte d’Ivoire is currently in transition following a bloodless military revolt in December 1999. General Robert Gueï, who was Chief of Staff under Presidents Felix Houphouet-Boigny and Bédié, declared himself the new president, suspended the constitution, dissolved the National Assembly and formed the National Committee for Public Salvation (CNSP), which consists of himself and eight military officers. Although Gueï pledged that “press freedom will be total,” he also warned local reporters against reporting “garbage.”
It remains to be seen whether Neruda, appointed deputy chief editor in February 2000, and his colleagues will be able to practice journalism without further harassment.