The courage to inform: Antoine Assalé Tiémoko, Abidjan's righter of wrongs
Many kinds of writing can provoke fierce and angry opposition, and the work of journalist Antoine Assalé Tiémoko more than most. His newspaper, L’Éléphant Déchaîné, uses satire to denounce injustice, corruption, embezzlement and other evils in his native Côte d’Ivoire. As a journalist, he is perfectly entitled to engage in satire, a simultaneously serious and impertinent writing style, but essential to an open democratic debate.
Yet Antoine Assalé never unleashes the full force of his pen without first carrying out exhaustive investigations to make absolutely sure that the information he publishes is true.
In some societies, when journalists uncover scandals and bring to light secrets that some would rather keep buried, being a bearer of information can be a risky business.
Antoine Assalé Tiémoko has certainly paid the price, enduring arrests, convictions, defamation proceedings and attempts on his life, as well as multiple visits from the national gendarmerie's investigation unit.
If you say nothing, you are dead
That is probably why he maintains close links with journalists from satirical French weekly Le Canard Enchaîné and, in particular, Edwy Plénel, president and co-founder of online newspaper Mediapart, as well as appearing on Radio France Internationale (RFI) and other international media. “Speaking out is a way of protecting yourself,” the journalist argues. “If you say nothing, you are dead.”
Nevertheless, he remains a target for some, including high-level individuals, who have an interest in ensuring that certain information does not fall into the public domain. His first arrest came under the regime of former president Laurent Gbagbo, when he was accused of contempt of court and libel after publishing an article on justice in Côte d’Ivoire. After five days in custody, he was tried and sentenced to 12 months in prison. Following his release, in 2009, he created the association SOS Justice Côte d’Ivoire to defend prisoners' rights.
Since then, the journalist and father of three has been subjected to a never-ending steamroller of threats and intimidation. In December 2014, Assalé survived an attempt on his life. As he walked to his office at 6.30 a.m., a vehicle followed him and twice tried to run him over.
The story caused quite a stir, attracting attention from the international media. Assalé Tiémoko had been investigating a public contract awarded to a multinational in a negotiated procedure without prior publication of a contract notice. Two actions against person or persons unknown were brought following this attempted murder, but neither came to anything.
“Since our offices were burgled for the second time in September 2016, I have been under close protection.” Assalé explains. “I was conducting an investigation into the cashew industry. The only things to be stolen were files and hardware containing information relating to the investigation. When I had written to the people incriminated in my investigation, I had received anonymous calls and text messages saying, ‘we are going to get rid of you’.
“The first burglary took place in February of the same year. I have had to move three times in the space of two years. We have filed six complaints. As yet, none of them has been followed up. They didn't even listen to us. They didn't even pretend to be interested. But we won't lose hope...”
Assalé no longer goes anywhere, be it in Abidjan or elsewhere in the country, without close protection, a fact that could compromise his investigative work.
Over the years, both he and L’Eléphant Déchainé have received plenty of offers of “corruption via players from the press or other people that you know to a greater or lesser extent”. These figures act as “negotiators”, asking Assalé and his newspaper to “make peace” or to agree to a “non-aggression pact”. As Assalé puts it, “They offer you money, and if you don't accept, they proceed to intimidate you in various ways”.
This defender of human rights and press freedom would not have found himself so exposed if the authorities had thoroughly investigated every story published in L’Eléphant Déchaîné. “We publish articles and the authorities don't react at all. So the people in question think there are no consequences. And they see that as reason enough to make us pay for our revelations,’’ says Assalé.
Assalé has shown great bravery in the face of a situation that has discouraged more than one journalist from joining L'Eléphant Déchaîné. His family also have serious concerns.
“My nine-year-old son has been worried ever since he heard on the radio that I had been the victim of an attempted physical assault. That means I sometimes have to handle certain stories very cautiously, and water down certain revelations. It's a kind of self-censorship, but it is justified self-censorship. What use are you if you are dead? Particularly when the people incriminated by our investigations know nothing is going to happen to them,” he reasons.
I keep going. I have no choice. No choice but to stand up and keep defending human rights... the right of Ivorian citizens to accurate, well-researched news
The man who once wanted to become a magistrate now regularly finds himself in court as a defendant. In 2014 and 2015, an action was brought against L’Eléphant Déchaîné for defamation and contempt of court, with the newspaper eventually emerging victorious. Further suits lie ahead.
The newspaper's style has also led to a number of appearances before Côte d'Ivoire's press regulator, the Conseil national de la presse (CNP), which on one occasion chastised the weekly for a pun about President Alassane Ouattara after a rise in household gas prices.
Today more than ever, Assalé is determined to continue his work. “I keep going. I have no choice. No choice but to stand up and keep defending human rights... the right of Ivorian citizens to accurate, well-researched news... their right to know what is going on, for the sake of Ivorian society and democracy.”
The weekly newspaper Jeune Afrique has nicknamed Assalé Tiémoko “le Justicier d’Abidjan” – Abidjan's righter of wrongs. For all those in Côte d'Ivoire who feel that they have suffered from abuses of all kinds, he and his newspaper offer a vital source of hope.