People walk near a portrait of Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang along a street in Malabo. (Reuters/Luc Gnago)
People walk near a portrait of Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang along a street in Malabo. (Reuters/Luc Gnago)

Equatorial Guinea’s press silent on unrest in Mali, Syria

While Mali remains in global headlines with a March 22 military coup and rebel claims of an independent state, citizens in Equatorial Guinea are kept in the dark about the crisis unless they have access to international media, CPJ has gathered from interviews with journalists and a government spokesman.

For more than 32 years, President Teodoro Obiang, Africa’s longest-serving leader, has kept a tight grip on Equatorial Guinea’s politics, economy, and press — either through direct control, patronage, or indirect pressure, according to CPJ research. Diverting from the official line is unthinkable for state media, and reporting critically about the ruling elite–which is embroiled in international criminal probes for allegedly siphoning off the country’s oil wealth–is bad business for any of the country’s private newspapers.

Government censorship extends to coverage of any political unrest abroad. At the onset of the Mali coup, RTVGE, the state-controlled national broadcaster, broke the news via its radio station, but did not carry out any further reporting on the issue, according to local sources who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals. RTVGE also operates the only TV network in the country, but no mention of the coup has been aired on TV.

“We have not done any reports because it is not authorized to do so,” one RTVGE journalist told CPJ, justifying the policy by citing “the context of ‘African solidarity,’ and our editorial line.” The journalist said “RTVGE can air non-political international news like natural disasters.” Election coverage, however, is apparently acceptable. “We were able to cover the elections in Senegal–just the period of the results,” the journalist said.

Censorship in Equatorial Guinea is enforced at the order and discretion of Information Minister and Government Spokesman Jerónimo Osa Osa Ekoro.

Speaking to CPJ this week, Ekoro said that the government did not deem day-to-day reporting of political unrest in Mali or even Syria–where unrest has killed 9,000 people, according to the United Nations–worthy of broadcasting. “As long as the situation is unclear, we cannot keep broadcasting the same things all the time. We don’t report as long as we don’t have the conclusions.” He acknowledged that international news is available to citizens in Equatorial Guinea via satellite.

“We give priority to national news and some international news. We only have an hour and we must pick the news to broadcast. It’s like with Syria. We cannot publish every day. We wait for the conclusions. As long as every day it is the same thing, we don’t deem important to broadcast.”

A year ago, the government did not deem important to broadcast news about the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. Authorities even detained and temporarily suspended a state radio journalist over a mundane reference to the late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Ekoro seemed fully aware of the international controversy. “We do not directly interfere in the internal interests of a country. We respect the sovereignty of other countries,” he said, adding, “We were criticized for that over Libya. Why broadcast the problems of others?”

Ekoro also invoked a lack of resources to explain the absence of coverage. “We don’t yet have the tools, the images of events around the world…unlike Western media which have a lot of means,” he said. Yet, the government seems to have enough dollars to hire the services of international public relations firms to flood the Internet with positive news about the country, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice. Obiang has also offered US$3 million to sponsor a UNESCO prize in an attempt to polish his image.

But journalists in Equatorial Guinea are not able to raise questions about management of the country’s wealth. Likewise, they are unable to report independently on the multiple international criminal investigations into alleged money-laundering by Obiang’s son Teodorin. Instead, state media have exclusively relayed the government’s spin about persecution and neo-colonialism. So much for Obiang’s rhetoric that Equatorial Guinea has made significant strides in good governance, human rights, and political reform.