Attacks on the Press 2000: Guinea-Bissau

GUINEA-BISSAU REMAINS THE ONLY COUNTRY IN WEST AFRICA that has not signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 19 of which guarantees press freedom. In the absence of an international legal standard, the democratically elected but unstable new government of President Kumba Yala was quick to wield strong-arm tactics, along with a harsh Press Code that imposes prison sentences in cases of defamation.

On May 17, one of President Yala’s bodyguards fired on the building that houses the newspaper Diario da Bissau. He then entered the paper’s offices and threatened journalist Bakary Mane, who had written articles about the new first lady’s notorious extravagance.

On May 27, Ensa Seidi, editor of the state-run National Radio Station (RDN), was suspended from his post for denouncing the difficult conditions in which local journalists work. That same day, two television journalists, Iussuf Queta and Paulo Melo of the state-run Radiotelevisão da Guine-Bissau (RTGB), were arrested and held for two days after reporting that an opposition leader had accused Yala’s government of “tribalism.” Both state and private broadcast journalists cancelled all programming for a day to protest the arrests of their three colleagues.

Yala, the longtime leader of the opposition Social Renewal Party (PRS), was elected president on January 15. He won a landslide victory over Malam Sanha, who for nine months had led a military-backed transitional government. President Yala’s relations with the opposition and the military were rocky, however, and in late November he faced an attempted coup by Gen. Ansumane Mane, whose rebel army had overthrown Guinea-Bissau’s unelected founding president, Joao Bernardo Vieira, in May 1999.

General Mane was soon killed by loyalist troops. During the confusion generated by the coup, state authorities arbitrarily arrested many opposition politicians, along with local journalist Agnelo Regalla, who had denounced the government’s handling of the unrest during a BBC interview. Regalla and the other prisoners were freed a week later.

MAY 27
Paula Melo, Radiotelevisão da Guinea-Bissau
Iussuf Queta, Radiotelevisão da Guinea-Bissau

Melo, director of programming at the state Radiotelevisão da Guinea-Bissau network (RTGB), and Queta, an RTGB newscaster, were arrested in the capital, Bissau, and later taken to the central police station.

Authorities charged that the journalists had unlawfully broadcast a communiqué from the newly formed Socialist Alliance of Guinea (ASG), in which ASG leader Fernando Gomes described the government of President Kumba Yala as “tribalistic.” Gomes, a former president of the Guinea-Bissau Human Rights League, was arrested the following morning.

The three detainees were held in filthy, windowless cells and were not allowed visits from their lawyers or their relatives. On May 29, all three prisoners were released on bail. Melo and Queta still faced slander and defamation charges, however.

To show solidarity with their arrested colleagues, local radio and television journalists suspended all broadcasting on May 28. At year’s end, no further action had been taken against the journalists. Local sources believed that the case had been dropped.

Ensa Seidi,
National Radio Network

Seidi, editor-in-chief of the National Radio Network (RDN), was suspended from his post for complaining on the air about the difficult working conditions faced by local journalists.

He was reinstated on May 30, after a meeting with government authorities.

Agnelo Regalla, Bombolon Radio

Regalla, a reporter for the private broadcasting station Bombolon Radio and a member of the Union for Change opposition party, was arrested at around 1 a.m. on November 26. The arrest came just hours after Regalla gave an interview to the BBC in which he commented on what he described as a new climate of fear and persecution in Guinea-Bissau. The political turmoil stemmed from a confrontation between Brigadier Ansumana Mane, who had declared himself army chief of staff, and troops loyal to President Kumba Yala. Government troops shot Mane dead on November 30.

Regalla was arrested along with a number of opposition leaders and party members. A few days later, they were offered house arrest instead of prison, but most refused the offer.

The entire group was released after a week in detention, when a local judge decided there were no grounds to hold them. Their passports were confiscated, and all were required to report to the police station twice a week. At year’s end, the attorney general was still investigating the case.