Attacks on the Press 2002: Guinea-Bissau

Following an alleged coup attempt in late 2001, President Kumba Yala and his minority Social Renewal Party (PRS) government struggled to demonstrate to the international community their willingness to implement democratic reforms and restore stability to this impoverished West African country. But Guinea-Bissau plunged further into crisis, with Yala continuing to interfere with the judiciary and crack down on civil-society groups and the media.

In late May, the government announced that it had foiled the country’s third alleged coup attempt in less than two years. Yala accused neighboring Gambia of supporting the insurgents, and in mid-June, authorities arrested Joao de Barros, owner and publisher of the independent daily Correio da Guinea-Bissau, for saying on a radio show that Yala’s threats to “crush” the Gambian militarily were “pathetic.” Nilson Mendonca, editor at the state-run Radio Difusão Nacional, was arrested a few days later after the station reported that Yala was going to apologize to Gambian authorities for his accusation. The political opposition, meanwhile, claimed that the president’s threats prove that he is mentally unstable.

In December, the government banned the Portugal-based Radiotelevisão Portuguesa (RTP) after it aired a program about Gen. Ansumane Mane, who led an unsuccessful coup attempt against Yala’s regime in 2000. The government claimed that RTP had broadcast “information that could tarnish the good image of Guinea-Bissau abroad and could foment anger within the country.”

Despite repeated calls from the United Nations to work toward national reconciliation and good governance, authorities tolerated no criticism from civil-society groups. In early April, Attorney General Caetano Ntchama banned all media organizations from publishing any information from the Guinean League of Human Rights (LGDH)–an organization known for its criticism of Yala’s party. The LGDH, which officials harassed throughout 2002, said the ban was an attempt to silence the group.

Opposition members continued to complain about ethnic bias in the government. In early August, Carlos Vamain, a host at the independent Radio Pidjiquiti, was summoned to the Attorney General’s Office for allegedly making “defamatory” comments against the president. On his show, Vamain had accused Yala of “tribalism” for favoring members of his Balanta ethnic group in his government and military appointments. The journalist was fined 3 million CFA francs (US$4,500) for endangering “national unity.”

Both the private and state-owned media suffer financial difficulties. In June, employees of the national printing press went on a 15-day strike, demanding 17 months of salary arrears and forcing all of the country’s newspapers, which rely on the printing press, to cease publication. Two months later, workers for the national television broadcaster went on a two-week strike, demanding five months in salary arrears and better working conditions.

In a gesture designed to allay human rights concerns from the international community, the government allowed Gazeta de Noticias and Diario de Bissau–two private weeklies that the attorney general had banned in 2001–to resume publication in early 2002. Officials continued, however, to use licensing and registration requirements as a pretext to harass other media outlets and to threaten them with closure.

April 5

All Guinean media

Attorney General Caetano Ntchama issued an order to all print and broadcast media forbidding them to publish or broadcast any press releases or information from the Guinean League of Human Rights (LGDH). The LGDH is known for its criticism of the ruling Social Renewal Party. Authorities have repeatedly harassed LGDH members in a crackdown on civil-society groups that have criticized the government’s human rights record.

LGDH vice president Joao Vaz Mane said the “imposition of censorship was another step by the attorney general … to silence the LGDH.” Local journalists called the ban illegal, saying it infringed on press freedom and deprived citizens of their constitutional right to disseminate their opinion through the press without restriction. The ban was lifted about two months later.

June 17

Joao de Barros, Correio da Guinea-Bissau

De Barros, owner and publisher of the independent daily Correio da Guinea-Bissau, was arrested in the capital, Bissau, and taken to the central prison following an appearance on a talk show on the independent Radio Bombolom during which he criticized the government. According the Portuguese news agency LUSA, de Barros had been invited to comment on Parliament’s recent rejection of new budget proposals submitted by the Social Renewal Party government.

De Barros said on air that recent rumors of coup plots against President Kumba Yala were designed to divert attention away from rampant government corruption. De Barros also called “pathetic” Yala’s recent military threats against neighboring Gambia, which the president has accused of supporting insurgents in Guinea-Bissau. Interior Ministry official Baciro Dabo told the national radio station that de Barros was arrested both for his radio comments and for “other things,” but he did not further clarify.

On June 18, de Barros began a hunger strike. He was released the next day, after police interrogated him about his comments on the radio, but was ordered to present himself to the Interior Ministry every 10 days.

June 20

Nilson Mendonca, Radio Difusão Nacional

Mendonca, editor for the state-run Radio Difusão Nacional (RDN), was arrested by state security police in the capital, Bissau, the Portuguese news agency LUSA reported.

His arrest followed the broadcast of a news report earlier the same day on RDN during which Mendonca claimed that President Kumba Yala was going to apologize to Gambian authorities for having accused them of supporting insurgents who were planning a coup against him, and for having threatened to “crush” the Gambian militarily. Mendonca alleged that unnamed sources in the Foreign Ministry had said that Foreign Minister Filomena Tipote was going to fly to The Gambia with Yala’s apology.

Tipote denied the report shortly after the broadcast, according to the Web site of the Portuguese public broadcaster Empresa Pública da Radiodifusão. Police branded the report “false information” and interrogated Mendonca about his sources. The journalist was released 24 hours later.

August 2

Carlos Vamain, Radio Pidjiquiti

Vamain, lawyer and host for the program “This Week’s Salient Facts” on the independent Radio Pidjiquiti, was called by security forces for questioning in the capital, Bissau. Officials interrogated the journalist about allegedly “defamatory” comments he had made on air the previous week. On his show, Vamain said that “the problems of Guinea-Bissau cannot be resolved with tribalism.” Vamain went on to accuse President Kumba Yala of favoring members of his Balanta ethnic group in his government and military appointments.

On August 5, Vamain was called in for questioning to the Attorney General’s Office over the same comments. Vamain was told he was prohibited from leaving the country, and that he would have to report to authorities every Friday. On August 7, Vamain was fined 3 million CFA francs (US$4,500) for “endangering national unity.” He was ordered to pay the sum by midnight on August 12. On August 13, after being summoned to the offices of the judicial police, Vamain took refuge in the U.N. office in Bissau. Local sources said that some time later the charges were inexplicably dropped, and Vamain left the U.N. offices.

December 1

Radiotelevisão Portuguesa

Guinean authorities banned the Portuguese radio and television broadcaster Radiotelevisão Portuguesa (RTP) indefinitely after the station broadcast a November 30 program marking the second anniversary of the death of Gen. Ansumane Mane. The general was killed in late November 2000 while heading an unsuccessful coup against the government of President Kumba Yala. According to the Portuguese news agency LUSA, the program included coverage of an Amnesty International report calling for an inquiry into Mane’s death.

In a press statement about the ban, the government said that RTP had broadcast “information that could tarnish the good image of Guinea-Bissau abroad and could foment anger within the country.”