The television host introduced the man as a convicted sex offender. Then he beckoned his guest to a mannequin: “Can you show us how you committed rape?”
What came next outraged viewers in the Ivory Coast, who roundly blasted the segment on a prime-time show this week and urged the West African country’s broadcasting watchdog to punish the production team.
By Thursday, a petition demanding the ouster of Yves de M’Bella, a popular commentator in the nation of 27 million, and sanctions against his employer, Nouvelle Chaine Ivoirienne (NCI), had amassed nearly 50,000 signatures.
Protesters surrounded the channel’s office in the commercial capital, Abidjan, holding signs that read: “Don’t trivialise rape.” Telecom authorities suspended de M’Bella from the airwaves for 30 days.
A court fined the host and ordered him not to leave Abidjan for a year under a suspended prison sentence.
The episode reflected a broader problem, activists said. As in the United States, sexual assault is rarely prosecuted in Ivory Coast. Data on the crime is scarce, and few perpetrators are thought to land behind bars.
Victims, meanwhile, often face shame and financial burden when they come forward: They must pay for the medical tests that collect DNA evidence, which cost about $90 in a nation where a quarter of people live on less than $2 per day.
“This is rape culture, and it is atrocious,” said Benedicte Joan, president of Stop Au Chat Noir, an Ivorian group fighting to end sexual assault.
The name of her organization - which translates to “Stop the black cat” - is a reference to a grim term that girls in Ivory Coast hear as they grow up. “Black cat” is a code for men who break into women’s bedrooms, she said, and people say it like a punchline.
The lurid television bit this week was an extension of that attitude, she said.
“The people laughing in the studio, the people who wrote the segment, the people who approved it - they’re all part of it,” Joan said. “This wasn’t an isolated thing with one host.”
In the 30 August segment, de M’Bella led his guest, who he described as a “former rapist” to a mannequin under bright stage lights. The man had served two years in prison.
“Come with me,” the host said. “The camera will follow you.”
De M’Bella proceeded to move the dummy into different positions. He invited the offender to demonstrate a series of attacks.
He asked if victims had ever “enjoyed” the violence. He referred to assault as “making love.” He inquired: How can women avoid rape? (Advocates were quick to respond on social media: Women “avoid” rape when assailants choose not to commit it.)
All the while, the audience chuckled.
The clip blazed across Twitter as Ivorians shared their disgust: “It’s not a damn game,” someone posted. “We are talking about lives destroyed.”
De M’Bella apologized in a statement, saying he was “sincerely sorry to have shocked everyone while trying to raise awareness.”
He was promptly dropped from hosting the Miss Ivory Coast beauty pageant on Saturday.
NCI said it regretted the sequence and would not air it again. Ivory Coast’s audiovisual authority issued a two-page statement condemning it.
Punishing one man isn’t enough to overhaul the thinking that allowed that segment to air, said Désirée Deneo, secretary general of the Ivorian League for Women’s Rights. A coalition of activists are calling for a national focus on sex education, including television specials that focus on healthy intimacy and consent.
“Promoting and praising rape on television is shocking,” Deneo said, “but we are in a society where the culture of rape is banal. We must send the message that this should not be normal.”
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