Ivory Coast suspends publisher, press union boss in bribery case

Tue Jan 21, 2014 3:54pm EST

* Two found guilty of offering bribe to silence minister's critic

* Press regulator suspends them for six months

* President of main journalists' union steps down

By Joe Bavier and Ange Aboa

ABIDJAN, Jan 21 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast's press regulator has suspended the head of the main journalists' union and a publisher for six months after finding them guilty of offering cash to stop a newspaper printing negative articles about a government minister.

The West African nation is emerging from a decade of political turmoil during which intimidation of journalists was seen as rampant.

Conditions are now improving, and Ivory Coast climbed 63 places on Reporters Without Borders press freedom index last year to 96th of 179 countries, its highest since 2003.

The National Press Council (CNP) regulator said publisher Alafe Wakili and Traore Moussa, president of the UNJCI journalists' union, tried to bribe a colleague to "observe a truce concerning articles criticising the minister."

The CNP said the offer was an unsuccessful attempt to halt articles by popular satirical newspaper l'Eléphant Déchaîné, which accused Niale Kaba, minister delegated to the prime minister in charge of the economy, of mismanaging government contracts.

Assale Tiemoko, the paper's publisher, said he refused an offer by Moussa of 500,000 CFA francs ($1,000) to stop publishing the critical stories about Kaba. The CNP found that Wakili had provided the money.

"The Council found there existed an attempt to corrupt," according to a CNP statement seen by Reuters on Tuesday. Moussa stepped down as head of the UNJCI on Tuesday and said he was innocent. Wakili also denied the accusations.

Kaba's office did not respond to requests for comment. Communications Minister Bruno Kone said the government had not been behind any attempt to prevent publication. "We allow journalists to do their work," he said. ($1 = 483.6190 CFA francs) (Writing by Joe Bavier, editing by Alister Doyle)