Attacks on the Press 2002: Equatorial Guinea

Since President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo took control in a 1979 military coup, he and his ruling Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea have governed one of Africa’s most repressive regimes. The country’s small press has been incessantly harassed and intimidated, while citizens have been fined for reading controversial publications. Obiang’s landslide re-election victory in December ensured that the press freedom climate there would remain harsh.

As a former Spanish colony and Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country, Equatorial Guinea is politically isolated from the rest of the continent. The government retains a virtual monopoly on all broadcast media. The president’s son owns the only local private radio station–Radio Asonga–and its television affiliate. A handful of independent newspapers appear irregularly, due to high costs and government harassment, while all papers are subject to prior censorship by the Information Ministry. Authorities increasingly monitor telecommunications and Internet services. Under these circumstances, self-censorship pervades both the private and state media.

Despite allegations of widespread human rights abuses in 2002, on April 19, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights ended the mandate of its special representative to Equatorial Guinea, who had been in the country since 1979. Surprisingly, the decision came after 144 opposition supporters had been arrested on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government.

On May 18, the justice minister invited the public and international observers to attend the alleged conspirators’ trial. However, the foreign affairs minister called initial reports about the proceedings from foreign journalists “distorted,” claiming that they degraded the country’s reputation. As a result, on May 21, two days before the trial began, Deputy Minister of Information Alfonso Nsue Mokuy implemented stricter press accreditation procedures for all foreign correspondents.

Meanwhile, journalists for the local private press attempting to cover the trial were harassed by authorities and had difficulty finding space in the courtroom because the state press was given priority seating. Rodrigo Angue Nguema, a correspondent for several foreign news organizations, was barred from covering the proceedings on two occasions, even though he was properly accredited. Local journalist and head of the Equatorial Guinea Press Association (ASOPGE), Pedro Nolasco Ndong, was also barred.

On May 3, authorities barred the independent newspaper La Opinión and ASOPGE from celebrating World Press Freedom Day. A few days later, Nsue Mokuy threatened to ban ASOPGE, accusing the press association of operating “like a parallel government that does not coordinate its activities with the [Information] Ministry.”

Since ASOPGE was legalized in 1997, government officials have repeatedly harassed the organization and Nolasco Ndong. Last year, the mayor of the capital, Malabo, closed ASOPGE without explanation. It reopened after the Information Ministry intervened. In September, ASOPGE denounced an alleged government plan to remove the association’s executive members and install state-controlled leaders. The government denied the allegation.

Nolasco Ndong fled the country in early July, following a series of threats related to articles he had published on the Internet in June describing the poor prison conditions of the 68 people who were sentenced to jail terms in the conspiracy trial. After the articles ran, state media described Nolasco Ndong as a “lowly journalist who publishes distorted and baseless information.”

In early August, the Information Ministry and the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization co-hosted a three-day seminar on “press freedom and the rule
of law.” At the opening ceremony, Prime Minister Candido Muatetema Rivas declared his wish “to offer more guarantees of free and accurate information” and announced the creation of a media studies faculty at the University of Equatorial Guinea. But he also reminded journalists to “respect the ethics of the profession so as not to abuse the rights of others.”

Earlier in 2002, the government authorized the publication of La Nación, a new independent weekly owned by Nolasco Ndong. The information minister had rejected the publication’s initial name–La Liberación–which, he said, “undermined the democratic principles” of President Obiang’s regime. Since Nolasco Ndong went into exile, however, it is not clear whether the weekly is operating.

At the beginning of December, the United Nations sent Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Ambeyi Ligabo to Equatorial Guinea at the government’s invitation. The report on his mission is due in March 2003.