In Ivory Coast Dispute, Media Key To Message

Laurent Gbagbo is holding on to power despite losing the presidential election in November.

Laurent Gbagbo is holding on to power despite losing the presidential election in November. Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images

The presidential duel in Ivory Coast has fueled a propaganda battle: The incumbent president maintains firm control of the powerful national television station while his challenger is operating out of a hotel, protected by U.N. peacekeepers and with little access to the world outside the hotel's gates.

The dominant media voice is state-run RTI television, a vital weapon in the arsenal of incumbent Laurent Gbagbo. After a decade in office, his critics say, Gbagbo is clinging to power despite losing November's presidential vote.

Political analyst Gilles Yabi, who heads the International Crisis Group in West Africa, says Gbagbo's camp uses prime-time television to demonize all who question his leadership, including presidential challenger Alassane Ouattara, the U.N. and President Obama.

"The role of the media is very important. The strategy of Laurent Gbagbo is the control of the media," Yabi says. "Since the election, the national television has been transformed into a propaganda instrument for Gbagbo. There is no debate, there are no dissenting voices."

An endless stream of pro-Gbagbo supporters parades in front of the TV cameras. They criticize international pressure and portray West Africa's threat to use force to remove Gbagbo as a plot to impose war on Ivory Coast. Yabi says it is all meant to support Gbagbo's claim that he won the vote, is the rightful president and is not budging.

"When you control the national television, you can give the impression that you enjoy massive support in the country by bringing experts, so-called experts, that support your views — and that's what he has been doing since the elections," he says.

Alassane Ouattara is the internationally recognized leader of Ivory Coast.

Alassane Ouattara is the internationally recognized leader of Ivory Coast. Issouf Sanogo /AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Issouf Sanogo /AFP/Getty Images

Ouattara, Gbagbo's political rival, is the U.N.-certified winner of November's election. Unlike Gbagbo, he faces neither sanctions nor a travel ban, but Ouattara has no freedom of movement or access to the national airwaves. Guarded by U.N. peacekeepers, he remains in a hotel in the capital, Abidjan, blockaded by troops loyal to Gbagbo.

"Mr. Gbagbo does not want to step down. I'm a man of peace, but I believe seriously that force should be used to remove Mr. Gbagbo," he said in January during a video conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

But online video conferencing is hardly prime-time television viewing in Ivory Coast. Ouattara's camp has set up its own broadcasting service, but it has had teething problems and is no match for the nationwide reach of Gbagbo-controlled media.

One outlet that airs the views of both the Ouattara and Gbagbo governments is the widely heard ONUCI FM, run by the U.N. peacekeeping mission. In December, after the U.N. certified Ouattara's victory declared by the electoral commission, Gbagbo ordered the peacekeepers out of Ivory Coast, accusing the mission of being partisan and a party to the Ivorian crisis. Last Wednesday, Gbagbo's authorities ordered the U.N. station off the air.

But it is still broadcasting, says its director, Sylvain Semilinko, despite death threats to staff members.

"We are not biased toward Mr. Gbagbo or biased toward Mr. Ouattara," he says. "We interview people from Gbagbo's camp as well as Ouattara's. But recently, people from Gbagbo's camp declined to speak on U.N. radio."

Semilinko adds: "We don't say Ouattara is right, Gbagbo is wrong, etc., etc. This is not for us to make a judgment. We have to cover the facts, and that's all we're doing."

"This is Our Land" and other patriotic songs bombard the pro-Gbagbo airwaves. Such themes are the mantra of his youth minister, Charles Ble Goude, who is head of the Young Patriots and regularly mobilizes Gbagbo's hostile and youthful supporters with his fiery rhetoric.

His critics call Ble Goude, who is under international sanctions, the Minister of the Mob and Gbagbo's rabble-rouser-in-chief.

"The Young Patriots can be mobilized very quickly to support Laurent Gbagbo on the street," Yabi says. "This system is very efficient in creating chaos or threatening chaos, and, maybe, creating actual chaos if there is a real threat to the power of Laurent Gbagbo."

Many fear that the continuing presidential tug of war could plunge Ivory Coast back into civil war. The U.N. says more than 260 people have died in violence since last year's election.

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