In Ivory Coast, Gbagbo cranks propaganda machine into full gear

Ivory Coast state television has lost what little subtlety it once had and transformed into the communications arm of Laurent Gbagbo's desperate government.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Security forces loyal to strongman president Laurent Gbagbo stand guard on a main thoroughfare adjacent to the United Nations headquarters after firing to disperse women protesting for a peaceful solution to the nation's ongoing political crisis, in the Attecoube neighborhood of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on Thursday, March 3.

Three months into the presidential standoff in Ivory Coast and the propaganda machine is in full swing, as is clear from this message, one of many now broadcast daily on state television:

"France..." (cue photo of Nicolas Sarkozy)

"...and the UN," (cut to shot of peacekeepers)

"...are allied with the rebels and have declared war on Ivory Coast," (que video of rebel soldiers shooting)

"...murdering innocent Ivorians..." (show graphic images of mangled dead bodies)

"Now is the time to protect our country." (play video of angry youths manning a barricade, armed with machetes)

I've always been intrigued by propaganda: old British World War II posters, American public information films from the cold war. But this year, in Ivory Coast, where the propaganda is diffused by the sitting president who refuses to leave power three months after losing an election, I'll never see it the same way again.

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Ivorian state television has always broadcast something vaguely resembling what we think of as news. It's normal in this country where standard operating procedure is to pay journalists to come to your event and report on it. And like many west African countries, TV knows who's paying the bills, so heaping praise on "His Excellence" Laurent Gbagbo is always a good bet.

But things took a nasty turn after the Nov. 28 election. State television lost what little subtlety it once had and transformed into the communications arm of Mr. Gbagbo's government, desperate to cling to power.

The announcement of election results by the president of the electoral commission, which handed victory to his opponent Alassane Ouattara, was not broadcast.

Instead, television aired an announcement from the Constitutional Council president saying that he and only he had the authority to proclaim results. He then went on to invalidate more than half a million votes from Mr. Ouattara's strongholds and overturned the results.

It couldn't have been a more transparent power grab.

Which is exactly why the United Nations is here. Peace deals signed in 2005 and 2007 charged the local peacekeeping mission with overseeing and certifying the election. After the Nov. 28 election, the mission received signed copies of poll-by-poll results – as did the political parties and the electoral commission – and drew its own tally.

Local UN head Choi Young-jin confirmed Ouattara's win and refuted the Constitutional Council's ruling. There were minimal reports of irregularities, he said, but they came from a different region than the Constitutional Council claimed. Yet even if these polling stations were eliminated, he said, it would not change the overall result of the election. The assessment fell in line with statements from the Carter Center, the European Union, and the African Union.

Needless to say, Mr. Choi's speech wasn't broadcast to the Ivorian people.

Rather, according to state TV, the UN is "interfering" in Ivorian affairs by "declaring" a winner.

"No one can tell us who won our election," screams notorious youth leader Charles Blé Goudé, a nightly presence on the news. "The Ivorian Constitution gives us a leader, and no one – not France, not the UN – can impose a president on us."

Nightly calls to attack UN convoys and prevent them from circulating have already led to the kidnapping of two UN staff by armed youth militias.

And as of Wednesday, all opposition newspapers suspended publication in protest of harassment, after the Gbagbo-controlled press regulation body fined them for their coverage of deadly police repression in pro-Ouattara neighborhoods.

And, perhaps worst of all in terms of providing any semblance of fair and balanced perspective, the two major international radio stations, BBC and Radio France Internationale (RFI), have mysteriously disappeared from the airwaves, leaving nothing but state television to stoke the fires of violence and xenophobia.

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