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Story Publication logo March 18, 2012

Equatorial Guinea: Stop the Press

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Equatorial Guinea is a small, rich country in West-Central Africa. Thanks to oil, Equatorial Guinea...

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Image by William Sands. Equatorial Guinea, 2012.

Teodoro Obiang, the dictatorial president of Equatorial Guinea, claims critical press coverage of Africa's economic development is hindering progress on the continent.

"Africa is moving towards development in order to move beyond the bad image that some media use," he explained.

Obiang's thinking may explain why, in 2006, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Equatorial Guinea 4th on its annual list of the 10 most censored countries in the world. And why Reporters Without Borders (RSF) this year ranked Equatorial Guinea 167 out of 179 countries in the organization's World Press Freedom Index.

RSF classified Obiang as a "predator" of press freedom. This title is reserved for those considered the greatest threat to freedom of expression. Obiang shared the honor with North Korea's Kim Jong Il, Russia's Vladimir Putin, and Rwanda's Paul Kagame, to name a few.

Equatorial Guinea has never been known for being welcoming to journalists. Since independence from Franco's Spain, in 1968, the country has used censorship and intimidation to silence reporters.

Today in Equatorial Guinea there is no independent press, no national journalist unions and no press freedom organizations. The national press that does exist is little more than the propaganda wing of the president's ruling party, Partido Democratico de Guinea Equatorial. The two major national newspapers, El Lector and El Ebano, only print articles that praise Obiang and his regime. They do so despite the resounding evidence of widespread human rights abuses and endemic corruption.

The national television and radio network, Radio y Television de Guinea Equatorial (RTVGE) is no better. This network pays a constant homage to the president and the illusory country his regime claims Equatorial Guinea to be. Broadcasts are a repetitive stream of glossy images of the country's luxurious hotels, national industries and pristine environment. On the radio Obiang has been referred to as the "God of Equatorial Guinea".

Given the difficulty of obtaining visas, few international journalists have been able to access the country. Even during major international events like the 2011 African Union Heads of State and Government Summit and the 2012 African Cup of Nations soccer tournament, entrance to Equatorial Guinea was a challenge. Reporters seeking to enter the country have been told repeatedly by Equato-Guinean embassies that the relevant visas simply do not exist. Once in country, the work of journalists is complicated by special press accreditation requirements from the Ministry of Information. There are no standards in the application process and accreditation is given on a case by case basis.

The current regime uses censorship to control both the national and foreign press. Illegal phone tapping and interruptions in Internet connectivity are commonplace. During last year's Arab Spring the government officially prohibited RTVGE from covering the events in the Arab world, ridiculously citing the country's need to remain neutral. Independent blogger and literary critic Juan Tomas Avila Laurel began a hunger strike in protest of the regime's censorship of the Arab Spring. Recently Avila has sought exile in Spain, fearing the regime's potential response.

When censorship doesn't work the regime has no problem intimidating the press. After numerous run-in's with Obiang's government, Agence France Presse (AFP) and Radio France Internationale (RFI) correspondent Rodrigo Angue Nguema was detained for four months on trumped up libel charges. He was arrested after reporting on corruption in the management of the national airline, CEIBA.

Nguema abandoned the country after his release. At the time of his arrest, he was the only international journalist based in Equatorial Guinea.

AFP/RFI's replacement, Samuel Obiang Mbana, faced similar challenges. During the 2011 AU conference, Mbana was detained at the airport after covering the arrival of various African heads of state.  He was not the only journalist harassed during the summit.  Associated Press staff photographer Rebecca Blackwell was briefly detained and taken to the Ministry of National Security after taking street shots. In the same month a crew from the German television channel ZDF was also detained. Their footage was erased, and they were escorted to the capital's airport.

John Ghazvinian, author of "Untapped," was told his personal security could no longer be guaranteed after he asked too many questions about the national oil industry. Ghazvinian quickly left the country as well.

When a RTVGE correspondent accidentally mentioned the Arab Spring in a live broadcast he was detained for two days without explanation. These are just some anecdotal examples of the regime's use of press intimidation, there are countless more.

During the recent soccer tournament it initially seemed as if the regime was lifting some of its restrictions on the press.  There was little or no harassment at the airport upon entrance, and for the first time a ban on public photography was lifted.

But the illusion was short-lived. International reporters staying in hotels in Malabo were kept on a tight leash. Police in civilian clothing appeared daily to collect the journalists' names and reservation dates from their hotels. At the stadium, the work of the press was constantly complicated by changing press regulations and accreditation requirements.

On the streets outside the stadiums, journalists were harassed on a variety of occasions. One Reuters staff photographer was threatened by police after photographing a local landfill. The threat was serious enough to cause this experienced journalist to refrain from any more photography outside the stadiums.  Another freelance journalist and his fixer were forced to abandon their vehicle after being questioned on the street by two men claiming to be from the judiciary. Two days later the fixer was "randomly" beaten by police after a supposed traffic dispute.  It's hard to imagine the two incidents were unrelated.

Working conditions for journalists in Equatorial Guinea don't seem to be improving.   Freedom of expression and institutional protection of journalists are both still a long way off. One hopes that as the regime continues to attract foreign capital, it will have to open up to the press.  However, a report from an anonymous source within the Nations Cup organizing committee is hardly encouraging. According to the source, government ministers were furious when they discovered that international journalists were covering more than just soccer.

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