Radio France Internationale
October 21, 2003, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast
Hélène, correspondent for Radio France Internationale (RFI) in Ivory Coast's commercial capital, Abidjan, was shot by a police officer in the evening outside the national police headquarters in central Abidjan while waiting to interview detained opposition activists who were being released, according to local and international press reports. The officer was arrested immediately and the Ivoirian government promised an investigation.
After Hélène's family, RFI, and the France-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders applied in France to become civil parties in the case, a French public prosecutor began conducting an investigation into the murder. Under French law, French authorities have jurisdiction in the case because the victim was French. Although the French and Ivoirian inquiries are legally separate, officials have been cooperating. France and Ivory Coast have a bilateral treaty on judicial cooperation dating back to Ivoirian independence.
The day Hélène was killed, he was waiting in his car in front of the headquarters when the officer walked over and asked what he was doing, according to press reports. The journalist said he was waiting to talk to opposition party members. The officer then went into the building, came back out, and fired two shots, hitting Hélène in the head and killing him instantly.
Although the motive for the killing is unknown, the assassination occurred against a background of anti-French sentiment since Ivory Coast plunged into civil war and crisis in September 2002. France has troops in the country and helped broker a peace agreement signed in Paris in January 2003. The international – and especially French – media have also come under attack from the local press since the crisis began.
Jérome Bouvier, director of RFI's French-language services, told CPJ that the climate for foreign journalists had been extremely difficult but seemed to have improved in the months before the killing. "That's what makes it even more shocking," he said. " It happened in the center of the city, in front of an official building full of people in uniform."
Hélène had been covering Africa for RFI for more than 10 years, including conflicts in Rwanda and Somalia. He was known for his rigor, independence, and calm. In one of many tributes, French President Jacques Chirac described Hélène as "a great professional who died doing his job in the service of providing information about the Africa he knew so well."
On January 22, 2004, a military court in Abidjan sentenced Ivoirian police officer Sgt. Théodore Séry Dago to 17 years in prison for Hélène's murder. The officer was also fined 500,000 CFA francs (US$960), stripped of his rank in the national police, and barred from voting or leaving his home province for 10 years. The tribunal ordered the Ivoirian State to pay 137 million CFA francs (US$263,850) in damages to Hélène's heirs.
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