Attacks on the Press 2000: Guinea

AS GUINEA’S INTERNAL POLITICS HEATED UP AND RELATIONS WORSENED with neighboring Liberia and war-torn Sierra Leone, the government grew even more hostile toward the independent media. Nevertheless, Guinea boasts a lively private press that emerged, along with multiparty democracy, in the early 1990s.

Guinean journalists faced harassment, abusive detention, and even exile in reprisal for their reporting, while publications suffered arbitrary suspensions and closure. Independent publications face exorbitant licensing and production costs, along with the challenge of a national illiteracy rate estimated at over 70 percent of the country’s six million people.

Under Article 26 of the 1991 Press Code, newspaper publishers who fail to disclose production and distribution schedules to authorities at the start of every election campaign can be charged with sedition. Article 51 compels reporters to reveal their sources to the state prosecutor’s office, if asked to do so. Defamation is considered a criminal offense unless proven otherwise. Publishing “false news and fabricated quotes” and “indecent comments” are also crimes that carry hefty jail sentences.

In late March, the private weeklies L’Oeil and Le Soleil were suspended for one month by the National Communications Council (CNC) for allegedly “implicating honest citizens in wrongdoing.” The CNC acted in response to complaints from several prominent businessmen who had been criticized in the two papers. The suspensions were followed by the April 7 arrest of Abou Sankara, the editor of Le Soleil (“The Sun”), who was accused of violating the Press Code by launching another paper, Le Soleil Enchainé (“The Imprisoned Sun”), during the suspension of Le Soleil. The CNC seized all copies of Le Soleil Enchainé‘s first edition and banned it from future circulation.

The trial of the jailed opposition leader Alpha Conde on charges of “endangering the state,” has been a continuing occasion for censorship. Conde was jailed in December 1998, one day after the last presidential election. In early April, 2000, the government refused entry visas to foreign journalists and lawyers who wished to monitor Conde’s impending trial. On July 28, the CNC suspended three Conakry-based foreign correspondents, Mouctar Bah of Agence France-Press, Ben Daouda Sylla of Africa No. 1 radio, and Amadou Diallo of the BBC from covering the trial, which began on August 1.

In September, after nearly two years of systematically censored trial coverage, Conde was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.

Meanwhile, as tensions mounted between Guinea and neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone, government officials became vocal in their condemnation of the independent press. In an August 27 speech, President Lassana Conté, an army colonel who seized power in 1984 and then won controversial presidential elections in 1993 and 1998, attacked “dubious newspapers and journalists who report everything but the truth.” CNC president Emile Tonpapa published a lengthy article warning the independent press that “patriotic journalists in the national media…will find ways of responding to biased articles, seditious comments and reports by liars preaching in troubled waters.” He added that the CNC “would not tolerate any misleading excesses under cover of press freedom.”

As in the days when Guinea was a Soviet-leaning dictatorship, state-owned broadcasters remained tightly controlled by the ruling Party of Unity and Progress. And though the country does boast a few rural, community-based radio stations, their range is usually limited to a village or two.

Le Soleil

Guinea’s National Communications Council (CNC) suspended the Conakry-based independent weeklies L’Oeil and Le Soleil from March 31 until April 28, the longest suspension permitted under Guinean law.

The CNC action came in response to complaints by several influential businesspeople who were upset about the manner in which both papers had depicted them.

Abdoulaye Sankara, Le Soleil, L’Oeil, Le Soleil Enchainé

Sankara, editor and publisher of three independent weekly newspapers, was arrested at his office in Conakry and accused of breaking the country’s press laws. Sankara had launched a new publication, Le Soleil Enchainé, while his two other papers, Le Soleil and L’Oeil, were still under a one-month ban issued on March 31 by the National Communications Council (CNC). The CNC seized all the copies of the first edition of Le Soleil Enchainé.

The CNC suspended Le Soleil and another weekly, L’Oeil, following formal complaints by several businessmen who had been criticized in various articles published in the two newspapers.

Alphadio Modesto Ayibatin, free-lancer

On or about June 25, the State Prosecutor’s Office issued an arrest warrant for local journalist Ayibatin, who was charged with “discrediting and defaming the government” in an April 22 free-lance article for the daily Le Droit in Ottawa, Canada.

Ayibatin wrote the article during a professional visit to Canada. He compared Canadian poverty to African, particularly Guinean, poverty and criticized the Guinean government’s lack of adequate policies to tackle the issue. Ayibatin argued that anyone in Guinea could live opulently on an income below the Canadian poverty line.

Ayibatin was served with a court summons upon his return to Guinea in late June. Fearing imprisonment, the journalist fled the country and sought asylum abroad.

Ben Daouda Sylla, Africa No. 1
Moctar Bah, Radio France Internationale, Agence France-Presse
Amadou Diallo, BBC

Reporters Sylla, Bah, and Diallo all had their press accreditation suspended for a two-month period starting August 1.

The ruling was issued on July 28 by Guinea’s National Communications Council (CNC), a media regulatory body that accused them of entertaining a “hidden agenda” and reporting “tendentious and malicious” information on Guinea’s social and political situation in order to “tarnish its image of peace and stability.”

The CNC also accused the three journalists of not hesitating “to drag Guinea through the mud to make some money, under the pretext of press freedom.”

CPJ protested the decision in an August 10 letter to CNC chairman Emil Tompapa.