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Melissa BELL

Melissa BELL
International Correspondent

Ivory Coast: the challenge of taking the side of the truth

Le 20-07-2012

The FRANCE 24 Academy is training journalists at RTI, the Ivory Coast state broadcaster. Melissa Bell spent a week working with them on the techniques of investigative reporting. Here are a few of her thoughts, from one of the front lines of African journalism.


First of all I have to declare an interest - a particular soft spot for West African journalists. They are the ultimate underdogs, ill treated at home and ill considered abroad, underpaid, under respected and all too often misunderstood.

Of course no journalist anywhere is terribly well regarded. But in this part of the world journalists tend, on top of all the rest, to be blamed for the very democratic deficits of which they are in fact the victims. Not to mention the poor pay and the regular stints in some of the world’s most uncomfortable jails.

Of course there are two sorts. Those that battle indefatigably from the sidelines of the system, writing, where and when the system allows, but always under its watchful gaze, for independent newspapers that try, weekly or monthly or as often as possible, to tell the truth. And those who work for state run media, safely reporting from within the limits of what the regime allows but always in danger of a regime change. Because it is at those moments that they tend to become part of the story. All would be tyrants know that power begins and ends with the communication and so in this part of the world where a coup d’état has historically been more likely than a peaceful and orderly election, the state tv network tends to be first place a would-be putschist heads. It can be quick and relatively painless as was the recent coup in mail. Or the crisis can span more than a decade as it did in Ivory Coast.

Here, from its headquarters on the heights of the well healed Abidjan neighbourhood of Cocody, the Radiodiffusion Television Ivoirienne, is still licking its wounds, quite literally. Even as its journalists go about the business of keeping the country’s only tv channels on air, the workmen go about reconstructing its war torn buildings. Indeed it was from inside these walls that until Laurent Gbabgo’s fall, his propaganda was organized and aired. Not that the intention was quite so clearly stated. But for anyone who followed the post electoral crisis of the time by watching either of the RTI’s two channels, and for anyone inside the country that was all there was, all foreign channels having been silenced for several weeks, it was as shameless an exercise in political cheerleading as you’re likely to find anywhere.

And so today, in these post crisis days of reconstruction, the RTI’s journalists are being re-trained. My particular job this week is to teach them the art of investigative reporting. Not that they particularly needed teaching. They are experienced, talented and full of story ideas. The trouble is more that in a country so long divided, it is as difficult now to tell the truth as it was before. As one journalist put it to me this week the only question that matters about anyone in Ivory Coast, especially a journalist, remains “what side is he on?”

The scars of the past are profound and largely hidden. They are in the mind, in the suspicion one has of one’s neighbour, in the fear one has of power. Here the danger of the past is its weight on the future, which is why the journalists’ telling of the present is more important than ever. And now the journalists of the rti are determined to start telling the truth rather than one side’s version of it.

So watch the RTI’s space. As the only broadcaster in Ivory Coast much hangs in the balance, nothing less in fact, than the future of this country’s fledgling democracy.