Attacks on the Press 2007: Guinea

During nationwide strikes and antigovernment demonstrations in January
and February, state security forces attacked Guinea’s newly launched private radio stations, blocked print publications, and threatened journalists. More than 130 people were killed, mostly by government security forces, during protests that were unprecedented in size and popular support. The unrest was quelled in late February when President Lansana Conté agreed to appoint as prime minister Lansana Kouyaté, a respected diplomat who was backed by local trade unions. Kouyaté’s appointment marked a departure from Conté’s brutal and often capricious rule, and local journalists reported a decrease in harassment and censorship in its aftermath. Still, the president, who rarely appears in public and reportedly suffers from diabetes and other ailments, maintained de facto control over segments of Guinea’s economy and political apparatus, and it remained unclear whether the transition would lead to long-term improvements for the Guinean press.

Conté, a military general and one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders at 24 years in office, had long kept a tight rein on the media. Guinea’s first private radio licenses were issued in August 2006, making it the last country in West Africa to allow private broadcasting. By 2007, four private stations were operating in the capital, Conakry, and they quickly found themselves at the forefront of the action when a general strike in January spiraled into mass civil disobedience. The government responded with force; then-Information Minister Boubacar Yacine Diallo issued an order on January 15 banning the broadcast of any news on the strike, asserting that “all the security forces are on the alert.” Two days later, Diallo called the director of outspoken Liberté FM and instructed him to stop broadcasting an interview with a union leader on the government’s repression of public demonstrations. Private newspapers, most of them based in Conakry, ceased publishing for several weeks after Diallo’s announcement, according to the Ghana-based Media Foundation for West Africa. Journalists’ work was curtailed by violence as well. A reporter working for Radio France Internationale (RFI), Cyril Bensimon, had to be evacuated from the country for treatment of a severe eye injury after a protester threw a rock through the window of a car in which he and other journalists were traveling.

When the demonstrations intensified and spread in February, radio stations aired “dramatic firsthand accounts of violent street clashes between antigovernment protesters and security forces,” Reuters reported. Mass rioting erupted across the country, as demonstrators attacked government installations, burned the homes of government and military officials, looted police stations, set up roadblocks, and battled security forces, according to a report issued by Human Rights Watch. The government declared martial law on February 12, leading to massive human rights abuses as soldiers went door to door, looting homes and attacking civilians. The martial law decree authorized the military “to take any suitable measures to ensure the control of the press and publications of any nature, as well as radio or television broadcasts.” The same day, security forces, including members of the elite presidential guard, raided the headquarters of FM Liberté, destroyed valuable equipment, and forced the station off the air. A reporter and a technician were arrested in the raid and held for more than two days before being released without charge. FM Liberté had just broadcast a live phone-in program during which listeners called for Conté to step down. Another group of security forces shuttered Familia FM, which had featured live discussions and descriptions of looting in the capital. Soleil FM suspended its broadcasts after reporters were attacked by demonstrators and received threats.

In addition, Guinea’s state-owned broadcaster was put under “the total control of seemingly pro-military forces,” according to a BBC analysis. The report noted that Radiodiffusion-Télévision Guinéenne (RTG) “remained biased and downplayed the gravity of the crisis. … A case in point was on 11 February, when the station failed to air its normal 1900 gmt news bulletin and instead broadcast a program about Christmas.”

RFI’s broadcasts on FM were interrupted for at least 24 hours during the crisis, but station managers cited technical problems stemming from power cuts in Conakry rather than political pressure. Nearly all of the capital’s cybercafés and printing presses were shuttered, while newspapers that did try to publish were subjected to censorship by government authorities. A tightly enforced curfew further restricted journalists’ ability to report on developments as they occurred. A commentator on Aminata, a diaspora news Web site, wrote that the crackdown “is an obvious attempt by Guinea’s despotic regime to isolate the country from the rest of the world, and silence the media, whose role in such circumstances is to inform the people.” The news Web site Guineenews lamented that “all freedoms that were not confiscated were given to soldiers.”

On February 25, the unions agreed to suspend the strike following negotiations backed by the Economic Community of West African States, ending weeks of political uncertainty and economic paralysis. Kouyaté, Conté’s newly appointed prime minister, promised to “take up the challenges for peace, reconciliation, and change.” His early priorities centered on restoring ties to international lending institutions and improving basic services, such as water and electricity, to Guinea’s beleaguered population.

In May, Kouyaté sent an encouraging message to the press by removing Diallo as information minister in favor of Justin Morel Junior, an experienced journalist and former communications officer at the United Nations Children’s Fund. Radio stations reopened, although Soleil FM suffered technical difficulties that interrupted its broadcasts for months.

In May, the government announced in an official statement that it would grant broadcasting licenses to more than a dozen new private radio stations in order to “reinforce freedom of expression.” Little media harassment was reported between March and year’s end. Radio stations continued to air live call-in programs, though local journalists cited widespread self-censorship. In June, the BBC World Service announced it was establishing two FM relays in Guinea, one in Conakry and the other in the central city of Labe.

While Kouyaté’s government appeared to refrain from the blatant censorship and intimidation employed by former members of the Conté administration, laws remained on the books that criminalize defamation and other press “offenses.” As if to prove the point, a Conakry court handed down suspended prison sentences and a hefty fine in August to two local newspaper directors, Thiernodjo Diallo of La Vérité and Abdoul Aziz Camara of Libération, in connection with articles alleging corruption by a former government minister.

By late year, local journalists were welcoming what they hoped would be a new era of media freedom, one in which government officials would hesitate to apply defamation and other press laws. But the situation remained fragile, and Conté was clear about asserting his authority. On June 14, he granted a rare media interview to Agence France-Presse and France’s TV5 in which he denied that he had acted under pressure for reform from unions and the international community, boasting that “there is no transition. I am in charge, and the others are my subordinates.”