BOUAKE, Ivory Coast (Reuters) – Charles Gnahore was panicking: his dilapidated moped had run out of gasoline and he was due in the studio to present the evening news.
After some frenetic bargaining to get fuel on credit from a nearby vendor, the 26-year-old made it to the small concrete building that serves as a studio in Ivory Coast’s rebel-held town of Bouake. He was just in time.
“The news has started late a couple of times before when I’ve had a puncture,” he said, scrambling to put on a jacket and tie as he sprinted to sit in front of the camera, with a crinkled map of Ivory Coast behind him.
Such minor contretemps are a regular feature of life at TV Our Homeland (TVNP), a station run on a shoestring by rebels holding the northern half of the former French colony since 2002 when they tried and failed to oust President Laurent Gbagbo, triggering a civil war.
After a few weeks of fighting, the conflict settled into a debilitating cycle of brief bursts of violence, followed by tense calm. Once a regional economic powerhouse, Ivory Coast became a place synonymous with instability, although there has been little all-out fighting for many months.
The rebels set up the television station — originally called Tele Mutin, or Rebel TV — to explain who they were and why they had taken up arms in the world’s top cocoa producer.
“We realized at the start of the crisis that the media was also a war weapon,” said Aboude Coulibaly, TVNP’s director and a member of the New Forces, as the rebels are now known.
Television and radio are major opinion-shapers in Ivory Coast where over half of people are illiterate. As in many African countries, seizing the state broadcaster is seen as an early prerequisite of any serious coup attempt.
Just weeks into the war, the rebels had created a Web site to push their cause.
They say they started fighting to end discrimination against mainly Muslim northerners, who have long complained of being treated like second-class citizens by the southern authorities.
Gbagbo’s supporters say the insurgency was simply a grab for power and wealth, funded by foreign powers.
The government has also used the media to rally supporters and the authorities have been accused of turning state media into hate media, using it to whip up xenophobia and anger.
State broadcaster RTI went off the air in the north at the start of the fighting as thousands of people from southern-based tribes fled the rebel-held areas.
Northerners can now tune into the state service by tweaking their aerials but many have little time for an institution they see as simply an extension of Gbagbo’s ruling party.
TVNP uses the ageing camcorders, VCRs and video editing machines RTI left behind — but it’s not ideal.
“Sometimes we have to stop filming to charge the batteries or when we run out of space on our tapes, we rewind them and record over the non-essential parts,” said cameraman Issa Fleppy, a lanky 27-year-old in a T-shirt with an image of Che Guevara.
NEED TO KNOW
TVNP’s 30 volunteers produce rudimentary programs on cookery, health, culture and religion. They also film a children’s show and run movies, mainly using bootleg copies.
Volunteers are given a meagre 1,500 CFA franc ($2.72) bonus each month, meaning many rely on family and friends for money.
“I wanted to help with (the rebels’) struggle but I also do it for the love of the job, otherwise I would be in the south finishing my studies,” said Fleppy, who plans to change his marketing course to study TV production.
The token sums charged for advertisements — usually promoting the local betting agency, coach company and night clubs — are often distributed among workers.
“We don’t always have advertising but (when we do) we use the money to buy supplies and give bonuses to the volunteers,” said director Coulibaly, adding that the station’s running costs amounted to around 2.5 million CFA francs per month.
Rebels run a shadow economy, funded mainly by payments made by cargo hauliers for passage through the rebel zone. The region is a smuggler’s paradise where everything from clandestine cotton to malaria pills are traded.
TVNP may be run on a shoestring but Gnahore has become a bit of a local star.
“Often when I get into a taxi they let me go for free,” he said after the news show, delivered in a style he copied from French TV presenters to project more gravitas.
Gnahore and Fleppy said they were not afraid to ask the rebels awkward questions during interviews.
“Several times I have said to the New Forces, ‘What you’ve just done is wrong’,” said Fleppy. “It didn’t cause problems.”
Others would tell a different tale in a land where freedom of the press has been one of the casualties of war.
In the south, reporters and newspaper offices have been attacked, often by members of pro-Gbagbo youth groups. In the north, journalists, sometimes southerners, have also been beaten and some have received death threats.
Rebel leaders and fighters regularly tip TVNP’s newsreader after an interview — a practice that was once accidentally caught on camera to the dismay of some viewers.
While many in Bouake say they are glad to have a minimal local news service, not everyone is a fan of TVNP.
“What are they on about now?” said a waiter impatiently in an empty fast-food restaurant, as an announcement about lost keys was read out.
Peter Murphy – Reuters