Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embaló at the Ministry of Interior on January 2, 2024. CPJ called on Embaló to guarantee that journalists would be allowed to work without state intimidation amid heightened political tension over the past three months. (Photo credit: Casimiro Cajucam)

Guinea-Bissau president threatens media, 30 armed men raid 2 state broadcasters

New York, February 16, 2024—Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embaló must withdraw his recent statements denigrating and threatening the media and ensure a credible investigation into two armed raids on public broadcasters and other recent attacks on the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday. 

CPJ also calls on Embaló to guarantee that journalists will be allowed to work without state intimidation, as these incidents occurred amid heightened political tension over the past three months. 

On November 30, 2023, soldiers from the country’s national guard, a security unit perceived as loyal to the opposition-controlled parliament, exchanged fire with the military in events that Embaló said were part of an attempted coup. On December 4, Embaló announced he was dissolving parliament. Following the dissolution, armed men raided the offices of the state-owned television and radio stations, and Embaló reportedly ordered government officials to monitor radio broadcasts for “insulting content.”

“It is deeply worrying that Guinea-Bissau’s media have been intimidated through armed raids and public threats at precisely the time when they need to be reporting the news freely and offering the public diverse viewpoints on an unfolding political crisis,” said Angela Quintal, head of CPJ’s Africa program. “President Umaro Sissoco Embaló must withdraw his statements threatening the media and desist from abusing state resources to protect himself from criticism. Authorities should also investigate December raids on public media and other attacks on the press.”

Armed raids on state broadcasters

On December 4, about 30 armed men dressed in military uniform raided the state-owned broadcaster TVGB and the state-owned radio station Radiodifusão Nacional (RDN), according to media reports and two journalists who witnessed the events and spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal. The men, whose faces were covered with hoods, ordered the broadcasting to stop and all the journalists to leave the office.

Both stations remained off the air for a few hours, according to those sources, which said that the men ordered an unknown number of technicians to stay and broadcast music. Later that evening, they ordered the technicians to play an unedited evening news segment on the dissolution of parliament, which included a statement from the council of ministers.

The journalists returned to the station on December 5, when Tcherno Bari, the head of Guinea-Bissau’s presidential guard, arrived at RDN with three armed military officers and told journalists that the presidency had not been responsible for the raid or the interruption of programming the day before, attributing the incidents to an unspecified “other force,” according to two journalists, who were in the newsroom when Bari visited and spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal.

Bari told RDN staffers that they could continue working without fear, according to the journalists.

Bari told CPJ via messaging app that “as head of security of the presidency, he could not offer any comment” when asked about his role with the radio station. In November 2022, Bari was part of a group that reportedly abducted and beat a radio commentator.

Later on December 5, Mama Sané, who served as the RDN director under a past government, went to the radio station’s offices with two police officers, announced that he was taking charge as director once more, and ordered the suspension of that evening’s news programming, according to the journalists.

The following day, he told the station’s heads in a meeting that he was under presidential orders to bar critical voices because of the political situation, which he described as an “atypical context.”

Sané told CPJ that “when I referred to the ‘atypical context,’ I had the safety of journalists in mind” based on his past experience with privately owned radios during political crises, adding that when he returned to RDN, they were “inciting violence through some of the interviews it made that were deviating from what a public medium should do.”

When CPJ asked for details on the interviews, Sané said he didn’t want to give specifics.

Threats by President Embaló

Embaló instructed Guinea-Bissau’s interior ministry to create “brigades to listen to radio programs” and “bring in anyone who insults anyone” so that they can be put in “[their] place” during a January 2 speech, according to two journalists who were present and spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal, and Vatican-owned news website Vatican News, which included a recording of the president’s remarks. 

On January 23, Embaló accused journalists of appearing to be part of the “opposition” and vowed to “end the anarchy that has seen anyone become a political commentator” on radio, according to news reports and four journalists who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing safety concerns.

The president’s remarks accentuated the dangers and tension experienced by journalists in Guinea-Bissau, António Nhaga, chair of the local professional association Order of Journalists (OJGB), told CPJ.

“We have people in uniform involved in beatings, and now they have a license from the president to beat journalists. It’s dangerous,” Nhaga said. “The political class already sees journalists as the enemy. Journalists are underpaid, are beaten sometimes, so of course, the media in the country is dying. What do I tell young journalists?”

On February 8, presidential communication advisor Yonhite Tavares barred Fátima Tchuma Camará, a local correspondent with the Portuguese public broadcaster RTP, from covering an event at the country’s presidential palace, according to Indira Baldé, an RTP journalist and president of the local union Guinea-Bissau Journalists and Media Technicians (SINJOTECS), and another journalist who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal.

Tavares said she was acting on the orders of the president, who was upset by Camará’s and Baldé’s public remarks during a demonstration by journalists for press freedom, Baldé said.

“I was told by a colleague…that the president said I am also barred from covering events at the Presidential Palace or the airport for the president’s travels while he is president of the country,” Baldé added.

When reached via messaging app, Tavares defended the president’s decision to CPJ by saying that in January, they had more than four incidents of international media outlets “deliberately misrepresent[ing]” the president in “untruthful reports” they “failed to correct.”  “The president has the right to ask for a change in the people covering so that it doesn’t get worse,” Tavares added.

When asked about the deteriorating environment for the media, Tavares said the government has been working to improve relations with journalists for “more than three years” and attributed the problem to journalists who want to “play active politics.”

“We don’t forbid the station from covering the news, but the people who want to go into politics should put down their journalist cards and join their parties instead of misrepresenting information without ethics or deontology,” Tavares told CPJ.

Online harassment

Recent incidents of online harassment against members of the press have further made the media environment “hostile and suffocating” since December 2023, Baldé told CPJ.

On December 2, Olho Clínico Guine-Bissau, a Facebook page with over 6,300 followers that is run by users who claim to support Embaló, posted a rape threat against Baldé, and threatened to assault Waldir Araújo, the head of the RTP bureau in Guinea-Bissau, according to CPJ’s review of the post. 

CPJ counted at least 12 posts published on January 26 on Abel Djassi, another Facebook page run by users who claim to support Embaló with over 3,600 followers, attacking the credibility of Baldé and Camará and denigrating them using sexualized language. A January 27 post on this same page accused Baldé and Camará of being mouthpieces for the opposition. 

Baldé told CPJ she does not plan to report the incidents to police. “There’s no point in pressing charges (about the online harassment) in Guinea-Bissau because crimes against journalists are not investigated,” she told CPJ, pointing to the March 2021 beating of journalist António Aly Silva and February 2022 raid of the offices of Radio Capital FM.

When asked about the accounts and content, Tavares told CPJ that the president and his family suffer daily “vile attacks” online and “on the formal mediums where these ‘political journalists’ work,” adding that the presidency cannot be responsible for the online threats against the journalists.