|Official Country Name:||Republic of Guinea-Bissau|
|Region (Map name):||Africa|
Background & General Characteristics
Guinea-Bissau is a small West African country situated on the Atlantic coast, directly south of Senegal and northwest of Guinea (Guinea-Conakry). Colonized by the Portuguese during the European colonial era, Guinea-Bissau became independent in 1974 after a long and violent war led by the leftist African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), with Luis Cabral at its helm. Its capital city is Bissau.
Guinea-Bissau has a population of approximately 1.3 million. The major language groups in the country are Portuguese, Crioulo, and a number of African languages. The population practices Islam, Christianity, and indigenous religions. Because illiteracy is very high—about 50 percent—news broadcasts by radio are the most practical and popular means of communicating current events and perspectives on domestic and international situations.
Kumba Yala, Guinea-Bissau's current president, won free elections held in January 2000. Yala's rise to power followed four years of civil war from 1994 to 1998 that ended with foreign mediation and two years of policing by West African peacekeepers. The country continues to struggle with internal conflicts and has a fractious relationship with the Gambia, leading to rumors from time to time that armed conflict is about to erupt between the two countries. In part, this explains the government's special sensitivity to security concerns but by no means excuses the harsh treatment meted out to members of the media.
President Yala, formerly a teacher, has supported the following goals for Guinea-Bissau: fostering national reconciliation after the civil war, balancing the national budget, making the economy more productive with an emphasis on agriculture, diminishing public spending, and canceling special benefits for government ministers. However, he has been accused of being temperamental and authoritarian in his manner of leadership. This led to the resignation of some of his governing coalition partners in mid-2001 and made President Yala's party, the Social Renewal Party, a minority party. After this occurred, the president reportedly became more aggressive and confrontational with other members of the government and officials in the other two branches of government, the legislature and judiciary.
As the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) noted in its Africa 2001 report, "At the end of the summer , the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the president's decision to expel members of the Ahmadiyya Islamic sect, whom he had accused of causing instability. Over the next two months, Yala went on a rampage." CPJ reported that four Supreme Court judges lost their positions after the president charged them with corruption. President Yala also threatened to replace most of Guinea-Bissau's public servants with persons from his own political party, and he "threatened to shoot any politician who tried to use the army against him," in CPJ's words.
As Reporters without Borders noted in its annual report for 2001, "Guinea-Bissau has still not recovered from the multiple coups d'etat and armed conflict in the past few years." During 2001, government limitations of press freedom increased, a pattern that was repeated if not exacerbated in 2002. In its annual report for 2001, Amnesty International reported, "Journalists were harassed and briefly detained for publishing articles critical of the government or organizing radio debates deemed sensitive by the authorities."
No Pintcha is the government-affiliated newspaper. A few private newspapers exist, though some have repeatedly met with government attempts to silence them. The Diário de Bissau , one of the leading private newspapers until late 2001, generally published several times a week, though certain stories and some of its leading staff members came under repeated government attack. In October 2001 the paper was closed down by Attorney General Caetano N'Tchama, who alleged it was not properly licensed. The same fate befell the private weekly, Gazeta de Noticias , allegedly for the same reason. Both papers also were accused of having caused severe damage to Guinea-Bissau's independence. Other private weeklies include Correio de Bissau , Banobero , and Fraskera , the latter of these a new paper added at the close of 2001.
Guinea-Bissau has a very troubled economy, despite the fact that before its civil war, the country was viewed as a possible model for African development. Huge foreign debt saddles the economy of Guinea-Bissau, and the country depends heavily on international donor assistance to survive. Government corruption appears to have contributed to the sorry state of Guinea-Bissau's economy. As CPJ remarked, "widespread allegations of corruption and mismanagement" plagued the government in 2001.
The economy of Guinea-Bissau is basically agricultural, the principal exports being cashew nuts, shrimp, peanuts, palm kernels, and cut timber. Annual per capita income is only about US $180. By 2002 health standards were very low and average life expectancy was only 43 years for men and 48 years for women—abysmally low by international standards.
The private press often is strapped for funds because of the poor national economy and the fact that a lack of advertising in the private press often puts many independent newspapers on the edge of financial sustainability and the brink of closure. The state media does not fare much better. As Reporters without Borders observed, "Employees of the RTGB, the national broadcasting company, went on several strikes during the year to demand better working conditions and payment of their salaries. Some RTGB journalists and technicians have not been paid for nearly two years." State media professionals allegedly practice self-censorship even more stringently than private journalists, in order to protect themselves from government sanctions.
The fact that all newspapers in Guinea-Bissau— public and private together—must be printed in the government printing house adds to the tenuousness of publication schedules. The printing house fees are high, and printing supplies frequently are unavailable to publish papers in sufficient quantities. No other domestic printing company is available to the country's media.
The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. However, the government of Guinea-Bissau—arguably overreacting to concerns about potential, new insurrections in the country and rumors of rebel incursions supported from nearby Gambia—has acted repressively toward journalists and the private press. In March 2001 about 30 journalists signed a petition in which they protested "censorship and detention without trial of journalists practicing their profession in Guinea-Bissau."
The new Attorney General appointed in September 2001, Caetano N'Tchama, served as prime minister of Guinea-Bissau until President Yala dismissed him from his head-of-government position in March 2002. He had been particularly harsh toward the media. The same month he was appointed Attorney General, N'Tchama entered the private radio station, Radio Pidjiquiti, and demanded that tapes from an earlier broadcast be turned over to him. When the broadcasters refused, N'Tchama sent armed men the next day to intimidate station staff even further. He continued to demand the tapes from a program where journalists from the private newspaper, Diário de Bissau , had suggested N'Tchama was dismissed from his post as prime minister due to incompetence.
In March 2001 Assistant State Prosecutor Genésio de Carvalho made an outright recommendation to Guinea-Bissau's media professionals that they practice "self-censorship." Journalists, publishers, and editors in both the private and the public media must pay attention to whether their reports and broadcasts are likely to come under criticism by the government in order to avoid government harassment, intimidation and threats, personal detention, and media closures.
Two of the latest examples of the government's ongoing efforts to silence media critiques were the respective arrests on July 17 and 20, 2002 of João de Barros, publisher and editor of a private weekly news magazine, Correio de Bissau , and Nilson Mendonca, reporter for the RDN. De Barros had appeared on a talk show of the independent radio station, Radio Bombolom, and had claimed that rather than being true, recent rumors of plots against the president were aimed at directing attention away from government corruption; he also discounted rumors that Gambian officials were supporting rebel activity in Guinea-Bissau. After being detained for two days, de Barros was released on the condition that he report to the authorities on a frequent, regular basis. Mendonca appeared to have been arrested for stating that the president should apologize to Gambian officials after accusing them of supporting rebels in Guinea-Bissau. Questioned about his sources, Mendonca was released after 24 hours' detention.
The World Association of Newspapers and the World Editors' Forum (the latter a subgroup of the larger association, WAN), both based in Paris, sent a letter to President Yala and denounced the arrests, reminding the president that the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees freedom of expression and calling on the government of Guinea-Bissau to stop harassing journalists.
Continual efforts by President Yala to stop criticism of himself and his government by the private media and to exercise control over the types of news reported have led to repeat arrests for João de Barros, the publisher and editor of Diário de Bissau , and the closure of that paper in October 2001. De Barros restarted a private weekly of his that had been closed down five years earlier, Correio de Bissau , in December 2001; de Barros and that paper have been no less successful in escaping the wrath of government censors in 2002. Athizar Mendes, another journalist with the Diário de Bissau , also met with government reprisal for the stories he has covered. One of his stories, published in June 2001, alleged the president's involvement with an array of top civil servants in misappropriating large sums of money from the public treasury. Mendes and de Barros have been arrested repeatedly for their work.
In January 2001 Bacar Tcherno Dole, a state radio journalist and reporter for No Pintcha , the government newspaper, was arrested and mistreated for having mistakenly reported a violent incursion into the country's Sao Domingo region by rebels from Casamance in neighboring Senegal. The U.S. Department of State stated that the journalist was "abused physically and intimidated by the military and police during his detention," based on an Amnesty International report.
State-press relations are none too positive in Guinea-Bissau in the aftermath of the civil war of the mid-1990s. Government censorship of the media abounds, and state as well as private journalists, publishers, editors, and broadcasters must watch their words or risk government abuse.
Attitude toward Foreign Media
Upon occasion, government mishandling of the press does not stop with the domestic media. In March 2001 Adolfo Palma, a correspondent for LUSA, the Portuguese news agency, was charged with defamation after reporting on the arrest in February of persons in Guinea-Bissau. Government officials accused him of misrepresenting the truth.
Radio Mavegro, a private commercial station, includes programming from the British Broadcasting Corporation's World Service in its broadcasts.
The only television station in the country is Radio Televisao de Guinea-Bissau (RTGB). However, in 1997 the Portuguese government established a television broadcasting station, RTP Africa, comprised of a network of local stations in all the states that were formerly Portuguese colonies. The local managers are from the countries where the stations are situated, but the financing and studio equipment come from the Portuguese government.
The national radio broadcasting station in Guinea-Bissau is Radio Nacional. Private radio stations are few in number but include Radio Mavegro, a commercial station that also broadcasts some programs produced by the British Broadcasting Company's World Service, Radio Bombolom FM, and Radio Pidjiquiti. In October 2001 Attorney General N'Tchama accused the latter two private and very popular radio stations of irregularly handling "their administrative and legal situation" and threatened to close them down. However, the two stations were allowed to continue to operate—because of their usefulness to the government in broadcasting news and also because of their great popularity, according to some local journalists.
Local community radio stations previously supported by non-governmental associations did not resume broadcasting in 2001. The government does not restrict access to the Internet, which is available in Guinea-Bissau.
Despite the fact that the country of Guinea-Bissau had a very promising past in terms of its economic and social development, the country today is rife with problems—economic, social, and political. In consequence, members of the media frequently are threatened and harassed by government officials who appear to seek scapegoats to blame for the problems they have not yet solved and to which they have contributed. Both state and private media professionals face problems in being irregularly or poorly paid, the state printing house frequently lacks necessary supplies that prevent the public and private press from publishing regularly, and government intimidation of journalists occurs fairly regularly. Some journalists and editors are arrested repeatedly, targeted by the government for critiquing government behavior and for supposedly adding to real or perceived national security risks.
With the greater involvement of international media associations and human rights organizations in monitoring the status of journalism and the treatment of fellow journalists, publishers, and editors, some hope exists that the media in Guinea-Bissau will see better times in the not-too-distant future. With improved access to the Inter-net—rapidly growing throughout Africa—government officials may find it increasingly hard to harass those who practice the delicate art of informing their fellow citizens and the world at large of the ongoing problems and challenges in their societies. Certainly the people of Guinea-Bissau will benefit from a more watchful eye by the international community of the welfare not only of media members but also of the general population. By continuing to exert influence on the shaping of public opinion regarding government policies and private practices, members of the press—both domestic and international—hopefully in the longer run will contribute to the general improvement of society and politics in Guinea-Bissau.
The crucial role of the international and domestic press in monitoring civil rights abuses, including those exacted upon media professionals as they carry out their daily work, cannot be overstressed. This is especially apparent in Guinea-Bissau, a country on the path toward national reconciliation but facing many hard challenges of leadership along the way.
- 1994-1998—Civil war.
- 1997: Portuguese government establishes a television broadcasting station, RTP Africa, consisting of local stations from Portugal's former colonies, managed by local media staff.
- 1998-2000: International peacekeeping force composed of West Africans monitors the country.
- 2000: Kumba Yala wins free presidential election.
- March 2001: 30 journalists sign a petition protesting censorship
- October 2001: Diário de Bissau and Gazeta de Noticias , two leading private newspapers, are closed down by Attorney General Caetano N'Tchama, who also threatens to close two private radio stations.
- July 2002: João de Barros, publisher and editor of a private weekly news magazine, Correio de Bissau , and Nilson Mendonca, reporter for the RDN, are arrested and detained after criticizing President Yala's accusatory comments regarding Gambian government officials.
Amnesty International. "Guinea-Bissau." Amnesty International Report 2002 . London: Amnesty International, May 28, 2002. Available at http://web.amnesty.org .
BBC Monitoring. "Country profile: Guinea-Bissau." Reading, UK: British Broadcasting Corporation, July 5, 2002. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk .
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State. "Guinea-Bissau." Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2001 . Washington, DC: Bureau of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of State, March 4, 2002. Available at http://www.state.gov .
Committee to Protect Journalists. "Guinea-Bissau." Attacks on the Press in 2001: Africa 2001 . New York, NY: CPJ, 2002. Available at http://www.cpj.org .
Reporters without Borders. "Guinea-Bissau." Africa annual report 2002 . Paris, France: Reporters sans frontiéres, April 30, 2002. Available at http://www.rsf.org .
World Association of Newspapers. "WAN, WEF Protest Against Arrest of Journalists in Bissau." Paris, July 3, 2002. Available at http://allafrica.com .
Barbara A. Lakeberg-Dridi , Ph.D.