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Guinea-Bissau: Crackdown on press freedom

April 26, 2022

Dozens of radio stations have been shut down and broadcasters have been attacked. Journalists fear that freedom of information in the West African nation is on a slippery slope. Is Guinea-Bissau's media freedom eroding?

A man listens to a portable radio
Many Bissau-Guineans rely on radio broadcasts for news and informationImage: Andre Kosters/dpa/picture alliance

Guinea-Bissau's government closed 79 radio stations nationwide in April after the expiry of a last-minute 72-hour deadline to pay license fees. They fell silent. No information, no news — just dead air.

Only 9 out of 88 registered radio stations appeared at the Communications Ministry to renew their licenses. 

Others have since paid their fees, however their broadcasts are still suspended while they wait for the ministry to ensure their equipment is still operating within the the terms of their licenses. 

Muzzling broadcasters

Those that continue to broadcast without a valid license could face up to three years in prison.

Guinea-Bissau's journalists are in despair: The black hole for information in the West African country is getting bigger.

Journalists fear it's a deliberate move by the government to suppress their voices. 

Augusto Mario da Silva, president of the Guinean League for Human Rights (LGDH), accused the government of making the "final push" to eliminate the democratic rule of law and interfere in the editorial work of the media.  In his view, "there is no protection of the public interest underlying the decision to forcibly close radio stations." 

Augusto Mario Silva
Augusto Mario da Silva: Gov't making 'final push' to eliminate the rule of lawImage: Privat

Hindering freedoms

The government is aiming to establish "a dictatorial regime bent on confiscating all the fundamental rights and freedoms won in this unrelenting struggle for democracy in the country," da Silva said.

Da Silva called for the immediate withdrawal of the decision, "which aims only to cut down on democratic pluralism and hinder the exercise of the fundamental freedoms of citizens guaranteed by the Constitution."

The African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cabo Verde (PAIGC) also condemned the closure of the radio stations as "drastic and illegal."

The party called on the country's civil society to provide "technical, legal or other support for the restoration and operation of all radio stations and all media" in order to "preserve and consolidate political and civil freedoms" and the right to information and opinion.

Guinea-Bissau legal expert Cabi Sanha said the government is acting "in a vacuum." While there is legislation, it is based on broadcasting laws planned by many previous governments but never passed, Sanha told DW in an interview.

It is "hard to understand how the government decided in the blink of an eye to close radio stations. This is really worrying," he added.

Radio Jovem in Bissau is one of the stations closed by the government
Radio Jovem in Bissau is one of the stations closed by the governmentImage: Iancuba Dansó/DW

'Drastic, absurd, illegal'

Freedom of information in Guinea-Bissau is hanging by a thread, Diamantino Domingos Lopes, general secretary of the Union of Journalists and Media Technicians (SINJOTECS), said in a DW interview. He called the situation "absurd."

"The closing of the radio stations means that we have suffered another defeat in the fight for press freedom, after several armed attacks on stations critical of the government in the past," he told DW.

The trade unionist stressed that radio stations are already facing several technical and financial difficulties and are unable to pay their employees' salaries. Radio stations have to pay about €400 ($427) annually. The decision has no legal basis, Lopes said. He suspects the government has other intentions. "Maybe they want to withhold information from society. When there is no information, there is disinformation, and the consequences are very devastating."

What is Umaro Sissoco Embalo's plan for Guinea-Bissau's freedom of press?
What is Umaro Sissoco Embalo's plan for Guinea-Bissau's press freedom?Image: Iancuba Danso/DW

Political crises on all ends

Guinea-Bissau has been plagued by political instability since its independence in 1975, resulting in a lack of development and severe poverty, ongoing violence and intimidation of political opponents.

According to the 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index, corruption in Guinea-Bissau is one of the most serious in the world, ranking 162nd out of 180. The former Portuguese colony has experienced over a dozen coups or attempted coups since 1980, with the most recent successful coup in spring 2012. It brought endless domestic and foreign political problems to Guinea-Bissau.

Troops from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have arrived in Guinea-Bissau to stabilize the fragile country after February's failed coup, according to reports by Portuguese news agency Lusa.

The West African nation's political gridlock has weakened the media and journalists, leaving them vulnerable to political pressure and leaving the door open to increasing government interference in state media, Reporters Without Borders said.

The right of access to information is not guaranteed, and journalists self-censor, they said. Some journalists have fled abroad to escape attacks, threats, and intimidation.

Attacks on media and critics

The magnitude of pressure on journalists is illustrated by an example from February 2022 when armed supporters of President Umaro Sissoco Embalo occupied the headquarters of the state radio and television station, Radio Capital, destroying offices and injuring five employees. They accused its journalists of "bias" in favor of Embalo's rivals. A few months later, gunmen attacked another government-critical radio station and destroyed its broadcast facility. 

Damaged equipment following an attack on Radio Capital in Bissau
Besides material damage, the attack on Radio Capital left five people woundedImage: Privat

Political analyst Rui Landim — a well-known critic of the government and host of a program on Radio Capital — was attacked at night by armed and masked men in his home. The government condemned the attacks and promised to investigate. But Rui Landim claims his attackers were wearing the uniform of the police Rapid Reaction Force — and suspects the government and the president to be behind the attack.

Silencing journalists

Media unionist Diamantino Domingos Lopes strongly criticized the behavior of Guinea-Bissau's government. Media play a big role in solving problems, he said, and silencing journalists only benefits those who want to sweep criticism under the rug.

Political analyst Rui Landim
Political analyst Rui Landim says he fears for his lifeImage: DW/B. Darme

"For the government, perhaps the best strategy would be to silence them," Lopes said. But Guinea-Bissau, which gained independence from Portugal in 1974 after a decadelong war of independence, won its freedom, and with it freedom of the press and freedom of expression, with a lot of sweat, he says. "And to take that freedom away from this country would be worse than the colonialists acting."

He and other journalists now hope that the government will be willing to compromise to guarantee the survival of radio stations, and thus press freedom in Guinea-Bissau. 

Iancuba Danso, Ines Cardoso and Cristina Krippahl contributed to this article.

Edited by: Keith Walker 

DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German journalist and radio host.