Up to a week ago, Guinea’s private radio stations were broadcasting dramatic first-hand accounts of violent street clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces.
But since President Lansana Conte decreed martial law on February 12, non-government broadcasters are either off the air or playing innocuous music as media freedom becomes another casualty of the military crackdown in the West African nation.
The martial-law decree gave the military powers to control the press, and state broadcaster RTG has transmitted warnings from the army chief that looters and troublemakers will be shot.
No newspapers are being published and although at least one foreign-based Guinean news website continues to put out news, internet cafes in the riot-hit capital have been closed. Foreign journalists have sometimes found it difficult to move freely.
Conte relaxed a martial law curfew late on Sunday, but opposition leaders and human rights groups say hundreds of people have been arrested by police and soldiers in a brutal crackdown to crush a popular rebellion against his 23-year rule.
At least 120 people, almost all civilians, have been killed since mid-January in labour stoppages and street protests called by unions, who say Conte, a reclusive diabetic in his 70s, is unfit to rule the world’s number one bauxite exporter.
Human rights groups accuse security forces of shooting, raping and beating civilians, including journalists.
When private radio Liberty FM started up last year, its name symbolised hopes for greater media freedom in Guinea.
These hopes were shattered a week ago when presidential guards ransacked its studios and arrested two staff members.
Minutes after the station had broadcast live calls from two protesters last on Monday for Conte to step down, soldiers in red berets burst into its offices, destroyed equipment and detained its top journalist and a technician.
‘Terror in the media’
It had taken considerable pressure from international donors, notably the European Union, for Guinea to finally issue licences to private broadcasters last year — one of the last countries in Africa to do so.
Even before martial law, Guinea ranked 109 in the 168-nation 2006 Press Freedom Index published by press freedom watchdogs Reporters sans FrontiÃƒÂ¨res.
”With the Liberty FM incidents, we saw a suppression of the gains we have taken time to win,” said Souleymane Diallo, owner of the Lynx satirical newspaper and representative in Guinea for Reporters sans FrontiÃƒÂ¨res.
The International Federation of Journalists also condemned ”this terror in the media instituted by the state of siege”.
The two detained Liberty FM journalists were released on Wednesday after being interrogated by presidential guards.
”They wanted to know who financed us and what our relation was with the union leaders,” said chief correspondent Mohamed Tondon Camara. He said his colleague, technician David Camara, was beaten about the head and burned with cigarettes.
”This state of emergency is a catastrophe. We have to submit our newspaper to a censor and that is humiliating,” Diallo said.
After the raid on Liberty FM, other broadcasters feared the same treatment. Journalists at Soleil FM fled their offices after hearing they too were about to be raided.
A journalist at the third local news channel, Familia FM, said it was broadcasting nothing but sporadic music.
Guinea’s army chief, Kerfalla Camara, has since ordered his men to protect private media offices but this has done little to encourage journalists.
”I’ve got the paper, I’ve got electricity and water but I don’t have the technicians to publish my paper,” said Diallo.
”Even if it was printed, the paper sellers wouldn’t have the courage to display it.” — Reuters