"After soldiers beat and killed university students, fifty thousand people demonstrated to demand an investigation. Human rights leaders were arrested and thrown in jail for months. I couldn't stand the official lies. I decided to expose the courtroom drama."
Journalism has become one of the world’s most dangerous professions, with dozens of deaths and hundreds imprisoned because they exercised their freedom of speech. Freedom Neruda exemplifies the extraordinary courage of these engaged journalists who report the news despite severe restrictions by the state. Born Teiti Roch D’Assomption in the Ivory Coast in 1956, he chose the name Freedom Neruda to symbolize his ideals. Neruda graduated from the University of Abidjan and taught until 1988, when he began working as a copy editor at Ivoir Soir. Within two years Neruda had become an investigative reporter, working for Ivoir Soir, La Chronique du Soir, and La Voie. As the current chief editor of La Voie, Neruda has consistently covered the repressive government first of President Henri Konan Bédié and, after his overthrow, on December 24, 1999, that of General Robert Guei—despite the government’s relentless attacks on Neruda and his staff, subjecting them to arbitrary fines, charges of "insulting the dignity of the head of state," assaults, arrests, threats, and harassment. In 1995, Neruda’s office was firebombed. In December 1995, after Neruda published a satirical article blaming the national soccer team’s loss to South Africa on "bad luck" occasioned by President Bédié’s presence at the game (a reference to Bédié’s electoral posters claimed he’d bring "Good Luck" to the country), Neruda’s colleagues at Ivoir Soir were arrested, and he went underground. In 1996, Neruda was apprehended and sentenced to two years in prison for "offenses against the head of the state." All three journalists refused to accept a "pardon" (tantamount to admitting guilt) from Bédié; instead they took advantage of their experience to conduct an investigation, while behind bars, on prison conditions. Neruda was released from prison in 1997 and that year, he was honored with the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Press Freedom Award. In 2006, he was a featured speaker at a Speak Truth to Power symposium in New York City before 5,000 high school students as part of that year’s Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights gala event.
When political pressures relaxed in the Ivory Coast, people had the right to create their own parties. Workers were allowed to organize trade unions. And there was the opportunity of creating several newspapers. Along with two friends, I created my own: La Chronique du Soir. It was difficult because we had little funding and, as ours was the first independent paper, the government didn’t condone our existence. We had problems; distribution was one of them. My paper would arrive at the distributor’s office at nine, but it would never appear on the market before three.
After soldiers killed students and beat others at the public university, fifty thousand people demonstrated to demand an investigation. That was February 12, 1992. Human rights leaders were arrested and thrown in jail for months. The press accounts of the trials were one-sided. I was at the demonstrations and saw what happened with my own eyes. So when I watched TV later, I couldn’t stand the official lies. I decided to expose the courtroom drama. Thanks to our efforts, several months later the demonstrators were freed. That is why I decided to work in our country for democracy, freedom of press, freedom of expression, and freedom of speech.
These events marked a turning point for our country. In 1960 the Ivory Coast gained independence from France, and for the next thirty years we were ruled by a single party. In 1991 the government passed a censorship law where almost everything was forbidden. Under this law journalists in the Ivory Coast have many duties and obligations—and almost no rights. And if you read these laws and you want to become a journalist you really should go grind peanuts because it is better for you.
Bédié became president in December 1993, and by February 1994 we started writing that he was implicated in a corruption scandal involving the sugar industry. A few months later, we were sentenced to one year on criminal libel charges. They said that any corruption issues were from the past, and as Bédié had ascended to the presidency, it was inappropriate for us to publish the story. Since Bédié became the head of the state, fourteen journalists have been arrested. But we were able to publish, although they threatened that at any moment they could throw us in jail. In French there is a sentence that says that when you are in prison there is a spear suspended above and at any moment it can fall on your head.
By this time we were writing that the president was corrupt and our stories were picked up by the U.S. press. But the government newspaper, the TV, and the radio started saying that Bédié is a blessing for our country, that he will bring good luck, and that he has been working well for us. This propaganda was too much. At that time our national soccer team played the South Africa team and the score was tied, 2-2. Everybody in the Ivory Coast was sure that this popular team, which had such great soccer players, would win the Africa Cup. The next game was on Saturday, December 16, 1995, and Bédié was at the stadium. When our team was beaten, 1-0, we joked, "He has brought bad luck to the Ivorian team." We were sentenced to two years for criminal libel.
We spent a year in prison. Thanks to several organizations all over the world, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Reporters sans Frontiers, we were released after twelve months.
Maca Prison is a very hard one. It is the biggest prison in the Ivory Coast. There were six thousand inmates when we arrived and over one hundred died in detention during the first four months of 1996. We were so poor, that we could never get enough to eat and constant vomiting reduced people to skeletons. You find it at Naca Prison even right now. In our case, the prisoners knew that we did not steal or kill so they had great respect for us. We were able to hold onto life in this prison because our newspaper sent us food every day. But many people were starving. They would give a small cup of rice at 8 a.m. and then nothing until the next morning, or two potatoes in the morning and then nothing until the next morning.
It’s funny that the Ivorian human rights league was continuously denied access to the prison until the 1992 demonstrations, when one of its members, a law professor, was imprisoned for seven months. He said, "You see—I’ve always been telling you I would like to see the prison and now I finally got access."
In the prison there are different categories. We were in a building for government officials and Europeans. Our publisher and two other journalists and I shared a four-person cell. The prisoners respected us and the guards tried to be helpful. After eight months the president said he would pardon us, but we refused. We said, "No, we are fighting for justice." Release would be good but not if you can’t look in your neighbor’s eyes. So we stayed for four more months.
I have three children—two daughters and a son who is two and a half. When Daniel Wilfrid was eight months old, his mother took him to Cameroon. But she sent him home and he arrived the very day I was arrested. My daughters were in the house with my brothers when I was arrested. The oldest is fifteen and the second is eight. I had to find somebody who could take care of the baby. It took four or five days. I didn’t want people to think I was running away from my trial because it would have been a big shame. The judge said he was going send me to Maca Prison but he would give me one week to get everything in order.
Several countries in Africa are like the Ivory Coast. You have two opportunities: fight for human rights and prepare a good future for your kids, or choose to bend and do what the party decides. So you take care of your family, you go on working doing what you have to do. But when they arrest you, you can die. So you better fight so your children will have a good future.
I tell my children that at any moment I can die. It is better to know. And I tell them, too, that at any moment I can be arrested. I wish my work didn’t have a negative impact on my children. But I know that if I want a good future for them we must struggle, each of us, in our own way.