Equatorial Guinea bars reporter from press freedom debate

By Peter Nkanga/CPJ West Africa Consultant on May 7, 2012 2:56 PM ET

Equatorial Guinea President
Teodoro Obiang (Reuters/James Akena)

To commemorate World Press Freedom Day on May 3, CPJ published a list of the 10 most censored countries, citing Equatorial Guinea as the fifth worst offender. In response, the Minister of Information and government spokesperson, Jerónimo Osa Osa Ecoro, dismissed the analysis of the country's press situation as biased.

"We are going to communicate with those international media organizations who are out to destroy the image of the country," Ecoro told me last week. "They have a biased opinion of the situation in the country."

To mark World Press Freedom Day, the government called national and international journalists to a "relaxed" press conference where President Teodoro Obiang "answered all questions" and declared how he enjoyed watching two hours of debate between the French presidential candidates ahead of the election this past weekend, according to the government. "There are really no restrictions on any activity of the press, provided they are legal," the presidential press office quoted Obiang as saying.

Yet, at the same time, the director-general of Equatorial Guinea's state-owned Radio Television broadcaster RTVGE, Teobaldo Nchaso  Matomba, barred Samuel Obiang Mbana, an independent journalist (and no relation to the president), from participating in a televised debate to which he had been invited two days earlier to speak on how press freedom could transform the country. Mbana, an international correspondent for the German-government funded broadcaster Deutsche Welle, the Senegalese-based Apanews, and the pan-African radio station Africa N.1, had been invited by the debate's presenter, Pablo Obama Osa.  But on arrival at the debate location, Matomba prevented him from taking part.

"I was told I am problematic, that I might say something the station is censored not to say, and which the government doesn't want aired," Mbana told me.

Matomba did not respond to a text message seeking clarification on Mbana being too "problematic" to participate in the debate. Over the telephone, he told me he was too busy to respond to my queries. Minister of Information Ecoro, when contacted about the matter, said, "I am not aware of this. Call the director [Matomba]." He was however quick to proclaim the country is committed to the freedom of the press.

But CPJ research shows otherwise. On June 11, 2011, Matomba had state security agents arrest a television crew from ZDF, Germany's biggest public TV channel, which had been in the country to film stories about women's soccer and the general state of affairs in the country ahead of the FIFA 2011 Women's World Cup. Matomba ordered the destruction of their footage, including pictures of children playing football in the slums, on the premise that the footage portrayed the country negatively by showing poverty.

The only Spanish-speaking country in Africa has also censored coverage of political unrest around the world -- even suspending a state radio presenter for mentioning the Libyan revolution while live on air. And there are no signs of improvement in the future. Private newspapers have been run aground. There exists no opposing voice; the only private radio and television network, RTV-Asonga, belongs to the president's son, Teodorino Obiang Nguema - for whom France last month approved an international arrest warrant following criminal investigations into money laundering. But journalists do not dare speak of this inside Equatorial Guinea.

"True journalism doesn't exist any longer. It is just advertising, pure propaganda that goes on in the country. No journalist dares speak against the government," one journalist, not wanting to be mentioned for fear of reprisal, told me.


Obiang is merely being crude in the way he muscles the press. In my country, almost the same things happen but in a much more subtle way whereby those identified as not towing government line are deprived of government advertisements (which constitute about 80% of adverts revenue)or given the adverts but deliberately refused payment. Sometimes imaginary government opponents are simply ignored and never associated to anything official. Intimidation is rife. Subservient media houses that receive hush-hush cash without the adverts can easily be identified because they are regular on newsstands even when they carry no adverts and hardly sell a hundred copies per press run.
Chief Bisong Etahoben

Chief Bisong Etahoben May 8, 2012 1:48:50 AM ET

Kicking out foreign press who may catch a glimpse of the slums is still futile. Just check google map's satellite images of the "cities" in Equatorial Guinea. Ram-shackle tin-roofed slums are everywhere.

then we should hit him where it hurts: his oil reeuvne The implication in that statement is that the Western world could change things in Equatorial Guinea by refusing to purchase its oil. On the surface, that sounds great. But it is not realistic, and even if it happened, it still wouldn't work. For two reasons:1) Doing so would be political suicide for any US president. Even a green president like Obama is under intense pressure to drill, baby, drill and ends up caving to oil interests. Currently, the biggest producers of Equatorial Guinea's oil are American oil companies (ExxonMobil, Marathon, Hess). Even if, by some alignment of the stars, the US were to pull out of Equatorial Guinea, it still wouldn't cut off Obiang's access to oil money because 2) China wants it. Brazil wants it. India wants it. Russia, Spain, South Korea want it. And companies from those countries are already present in Equatorial Guinea. China doesn't care about a government's human rights or democracy record. China has stated, and demonstrated, as much. It would welcome the opportunity to take over for the US companies if they pulled out. So what can be done? Place pressure on the government of Equatorial Guinea to do better for its people. The US Department of Justice has moved to seize more than $70 million in luxury goods belonging to President Obiang's son and potential successor, believing they were purchased using the proceeds of corruption. The French government has taken similar actions. A lawsuit against members of Obiang's family and government is pending in Spain. Ultimately, was the UNESCO prize the end of the world? No, of course not. But Obiang is intent on convincing the world that he is a benevolent leader trying to do right by his people, while he and his government live extravagant lives of luxury around the world, using money that could and should be used to improve the lives of ordinary Equatoguineans. Having a UNESCO prize with his name on it would have legitimized his presidency in the eyes of some. The fact that 33 UNESCO delegates approved the prize (with his name removed) suggests that his public relations effort is already realizing some success. The people of Equatorial Guinea are the losers. But cutting off the West's consumption of the country's oil won't help them either, even if doing so were possible.

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