Attacks on the Press 2004: Equatorial Guinea

Equatorial Guinea

President Teodoro Obiang Nguema has ruled this small, oil-rich central African country with an iron grip since 1979, when he overthrew his uncle in a coup and had him executed. With one of the worst human rights records on the continent, Equatorial Guinea is also one of the few African countries to have virtually no private press.

Although the constitution guarantees press freedom, criticism of the government in the local press is not tolerated. The government showed increasing hostility to the foreign press, too, after news reports of electoral fraud and massive government corruption. As a former Spanish colony, Equatorial Guinea is the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa, and its insularity exacerbates the difficulties facing foreign journalists.

All broadcast media are state-owned, except for RTV-Asonga, the private radio and television stations owned by the president’s son, Teodorino Obiang Nguema. A U.S. State Department report said state radio has “described President Obiang as ‘the country’s God’ who has all power over men and things … and ‘can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account.'” CPJ sources say state-run Radio Malabo regularly broadcasts songs warning people that they will be crushed if they speak against the regime.

A handful of private newspapers are authorized but have not published for more than a year due to financial and political pressure, according to the exiled Association for Freedom of the Press and of Expression in Equatorial Guinea (ASOPGE-Libre). All newspapers are subject to censorship by the Information Ministry. Correspondents from Spanish newspapers such as the daily El Mundo were refused visas to cover April parliamentary and municipal elections, in which the ruling Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea won a crushing victory amid allegations of fraud. During the election campaign, state media sang Obiang’s praises and referred to opposition activists as “enemies” of the state, according to ASOPGE-Libre, which is based in Spain.

In May, a crew from Australia’s Channel 9 television station was expelled without official explanation, even though its members had obtained 10-day visas. The five-person team had traveled there to report on the booming oil industry; the allocation of state oil revenue; and the financial benefits to the president, according to Channel 9 reporter Richard Carleton. But three days after arriving in the capital, Malabo, he said, a government minister warned crew members, “If you get on the plane leaving tonight for Madrid, nobody will be thrown in jail.” Authorities confiscated computer memory cards when the crew left an hour later.

Equatorial Guinea became one of Africa’s main oil producers after the mid-1990s discovery of offshore deposits, but most of the country’s population remains desperately poor. In July, a U.S. congressional report alleged that Obiang and his family had stashed away millions in oil revenue in the U.S.-based Riggs Bank. News of the report reached Equatorial Guinea only through the Spanish television channel TVE, which is relayed to the country by satellite. The government categorically denied the charges—and struck back against those who dared to report such criticism.

Information Minister Alfonso Nsue Mokuy accused international media, and particularly Spanish television, of trying to destabilize the country, according to international news reports. He warned local companies offering subscriptions to foreign satellite channels not to broadcast programs that could jeopardize national security. In addition, the government threatened legal action against TVE and exiled Equatorial Guineans who translated the U.S. congressional report from English into Spanish and posted it on the Internet, according to ASOPGE-Libre.

However, the government encourages news coverage when it suits official purposes. In March, the government said it foiled a coup attempt allegedly staged by exiled opposition leader Severo Moto and foreign secret services. State media gave the coup attempt extensive coverage, saying the alleged plotters were largely foreigners and “adventurers who were going to perpetrate a massacre and a bloodbath against the people of Equatorial Guinea.” Human rights organizations say the government has a record of claiming the existence of coup attempts as an excuse to clamp down on opposition. Some analysts, however, say the March incident may have been genuine given power struggles within the ruling elite.