Attacks on the Press 2001: Guinea-Bissau

The government of Guinea-Bissau remained paralyzed for most of the year following a split in the governing coalition that left the ruling Social Renewal Party (PRS) in the minority amid widespread allegations of official corruption and mismanagement. Unable to create stability in the country, President Kumba Yala resorted to an increasingly dictatorial style that pitted his administration against the legislature, the judiciary, and the press.

As tensions between the PRS and opposition parties mounted throughout the year, officials became less tolerant of aggressive press coverage. In early March, following the arrest of two journalists from the independent daily Diario de Bissau, Assistant State Prosecutor Genésio de Carvalho threatened to start prosecuting journalists and warned the press to practice self-censorship. In response, some 30 journalists signed a petition denouncing censorship and the arbitrary arrest of media workers, and appealed to the government to respect the laws governing their profession.

The statement was not well received. On March 30, Air Force brigadier general Melciades Lopes Fernandes burst into the studios of the independent Radio Bombolom during a debate on the fate of over 100 soldiers who had been held in detention without charge following a November 2000 coup attempt. The general accused the station of fomenting civil war and said the broadcaster would become an early military target in such an event.

As President Yala became more isolated and autocratic, antagonism grew between the PRS and the private press, particularly Diario de Bissau. Joao de Barros, publisher and director of the paper, and senior reporter Athizar Mendes were arrested in June after they reported on corruption in the ruling party. After his release, de Barros said that Yala had personally called him into his office and accused the press of causing civil unrest by publishing biased articles. The president then threatened to beat him up, de Barros said.

In early September, former prime minister Caetano Ntchama, whom Yala appointed attorney general, went to the offices of the private Radio Pidjiquiti to demand the tapes from a program aired earlier that day. On the program, Diario de Bissau journalists questioned the motives behind the recent appointment, claiming that Ntchama had been an incompetent prime minister.

At the end of the summer, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the president’s decision to expel members of the Ahmadiyya Islamic sect, whom he had accused of causing instability. Over the next two months, Yala went on a rampage. The president sacked four Supreme Court judges for alleged corruption, vowed to replace the majority of the country’s civil servants with members of his own party, and threatened to shoot any politician who tried to use the army against him.

In late October, Attorney General Ntchama banned Diario de Bissau and Gazeta de Noticias, Guinea-Bissau’s only private newspapers, because of their critical coverage of these scandals. Ntchama accused the two papers of a “continuing practice of criminal activity which was a potential cause of irreparable damage, as it attempted to undermine the nation’s independence, integrity and national unity.”

Sources in Guinea-Bissau reported that Ntchama also threatened to close Radio Bombolom and Radio Pidjiquiti, the country’s only private radio stations. Local journalists suspect that the tremendous popularity of these two stations in Guinea-Bissau, where only half of the population is literate, and their importance as sources of information to government officials, explained why they were spared the same fate as the two newspapers.

Because state journalists practiced a high degree of self-censorship and rarely questioned government policies, they mostly escaped such persecution. Due to the country’s faltering economy, however, state journalists often went unpaid. In February, staffers from the national radio and television stations went on strike, demanding better working conditions and months of salary arrears.

January 27

Babacar Tcherno Dole, Radio Nacional da Guinea-Bissau

Police arrested Tcherno Dole, a newscaster with the state-run Radio Nacional da Guinea-Bissau, and grilled him for several hours after he incorrectly reported that thenorthwestern town of Sao Domingos was about to be invaded by Senegalese separatists.

Tcherno Dole announced that heavily armed members of the Casamance separatist movement were about to occupy Sao Domingos to further their fight against the Senegalese government and its ally, Guinea-Bissau.

The announcement caused panic in Sao Domingos, normally a quiet provincial town on the border with the southern Senegalese province of Casamance, where a secessionist guerrilla movement has been fighting the Dakar regime, and occasionally the Guinea-Bissau army, for more than two decades.

Gunshots were indeed heard near Sao Domingos on the day of Tcherno Dole’s broadcast, but Guinea-Bissau police claimed they were exchanged between rival factions of the rebel group, the Movement of the Casamance Democratic Forces.

Tcherno Dole apologized for his report and was released a day after his arrest, local sources said.

February 15

Athizar Mendes, Diario de Bissau

Mendes, a reporter for the private weekly Diario de Bissau; an unidentified photographer for the newspaper; and their driver were arrested by state security officers who objected to their investigation into police harassment of two local diplomats.

The two journalists were interrogated and their equipment was confiscated. All three men were detained overnight and released the next day.

On March 8, after the deputy public prosecutor threatened legal action against the local press, some 30 journalists signed a petition against censorship and the arbitrary detention of journalists in Guinea-Bissau.

March 30

Radio Bombolom
Guinea-Bissau media

An Air Force general stormed into the studios of the private radio station Bombolom FM during a live discussion about the fate of some 100 soldiers accused of participating in a November 2000 coup attempt.

The officer, Brig. Gen. Melciades Lopes Fernandes, claimed the station’s programming could incite a civil war and said that the military would not tolerate it, according to journalists in Bissau. He added that in the event of a war, Radio Bombolom would be the first target to be bombed. After the incident, the director of the station suspended broadcasts for the rest of the day, according to local sources.

On March 31, the state-owned Radio-Television of Guinea-Bissau broadcast a debate in which military officers urged local journalists to stop meddling in military affairs.

On April 2, the opposition African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands accused the military of trying to gag the press. The country’s parliament unanimously condemned the threats.

June 17

Joao de Barros, Diario de Bissau
Athizar Mendes, Diario de Bissau

Security agents detained de Barros, owner and director of the private daily Diario de Bissau, and Mendes, a reporter for the newspaper.

The two were arrested after Diario published a June 15 article that accused President Kumba Yala of heading a network of corrupt civil servants who embezzled public funds by claiming false expenses and adding fictitious names to official travel forms.

On June 15, de Barros told a local radio station that after the article was published, a flustered President Yala summoned him to his office and threatened him with arrest and a beating. Yala denied the Diario allegations and castigated the press for its alleged bias.

De Barros and Mendes were released without charge on June 18.

October 26

Diario de Bissau
Gazeta de Noticias
Joao de Barros, Diario de Bissau

Diario de Bissau and Gazeta de Noticias, the only two private newspapers in the country, were shut down on the orders of Attorney General Caetano Ntchama.

Ntchama originally closed the two publications for operating without a license. However, he later accused the newspapers of a “continuing practice of criminal activity which was a potential cause of irreparable damage, as it attempted to undermine the nation’s independence, integrity and national unity,” according to the Portuguese news agency LUSA.

Journalists in Guinea Bissau claimed the closures were in reprisal for the newspapers’ critical coverage of the government. The closures came after President Kumba Yala fired three Supreme Court judges for corruption and threatened to fire more than half the country’s civil servants, also for corruption, and replace them with members of his own party.

On November 14, Joao de Barros, publication director of Diario de Bissau, was arrested and briefly detained at police headquarters. After the closure of his newspaper, de Barros was required to report to court every 15 days. He was apparently arrested for failing to comply with this order.