The African Union’s 17th summit is about to take place in Equatorial Guinea, one of Africa’s most closed countries for journalists and one of the most hostile ones as regards media freedom. Reporters Without Borders has just written an opinion piece on the summit for the Africa Slate website. It is entitled “We won’t go to Malabo.”
Here is the text of the article:
“We won’t go to Malabo” 28 June 2011
The African Union’s 17th summit begins on 30 June in Equatorial Guinea, a country where the NGO Reporters Without Borders would like to conduct a fact-finding visit, only we are not welcome there.
Fifty-two heads of state and government are gathering for the two-day summit in Sipopo, a resort described as a paradise just a few miles outside the capital, Malabo. Their meeting has been preceded by a week of consultations among other AU officials in Sipopo. Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who is hosting the event as the African Union’s current chairman, had this luxurious resort built specially for the occasion. The total cost was 830 million dollars (587 million euros).
It does not seem to matter that three quarters of the country’s inhabitants live below the poverty line, despite its enormous income from oil, of which it is one of the world’s leading producers. The president is pulling out all the stops. Equatorial Guinea must appear in the best possible light in order to enhance its fame and attract foreign investors. Civil society is not attending the summit. Journalists who might criticize are not invited either. They are being kept away or they are being closely monitored.
Human rights violations and lack of media freedom
Already known as a country that shows little respect for human rights, Equatorial Guinea recently staged a pre-summit clean-up, prompting criticism from NGOs and the international community. Alarmed by the revolutions in the Arab counties and determined to prevent any domestic unrest ahead of the summit, the government began an intensified crackdown several months ago.
Amnesty International reported an increase in arbitrary arrests, police raids in neighbourhoods where foreigners and illegal immigrants live, and the arrest of around 100 students at the end of May without any reason being given. Human Rights Watch has also voiced concern about a deterioration in the human rights situation in the run-up to the summit, while United Nations experts have accused the authorities of systematic torture.
The state TV and radio broadcaster, RTVGE, has meanwhile been running publicity spots lavishing praise on President Obiang and the country’s “development.”
Privately-owned media are virtually non-existent in Equatorial Guinea. They are limited to a few newspapers. State media journalists have to relay official propaganda. They are government employees who can be fired from one day to the next, with any warning or explanation. The country has no journalists’ union or any other organization that defends journalists. The information ministry, staffed entirely members of the ruling Democratic Party for Equatorial Guinea (PDGE), is in charge of regulating the media.
Equatorial Guinea is ranked 167th out of 178 countries in the 2010 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. This is the fourth worst ranking for an Africa country. Only Eritrea, Sudan, Rwanda and Somalia are below it.
German TV crew deported
In one of the latest incidents involving the media, three journalists working for the German TV station ZDF were escorted to Malabo airport and deported on 11 June, after being held for several hours. The three journalists – reporter Jorg Brase, cameraman Michael Berger and assistant cameraman Stanley Oriaro – and their local fixer were arrested by plainclothes security agents on the apparent orders of national television chief Teobaldo Nchaso Matomba while filming a concert at the French Cultural Centre in Malabo.
The crew had previously shot some footage in a poor neighbourhood where a member of the Equatorial Guinean women’s football team is from. The team is participating in the Women’s Football World Cup that began in Germany on 26 June. The German TV crew had also interviewed opposition leader Placido Mico Abogo and human rights lawyers. The video they had filmed was deleted and their memory cards were confiscated.
A diplomatic spat ensued. The German foreign ministry summoned the Equatorial Guinean ambassador in Berlin a few days later, while the German news magazine Der Spiegel ran two articles that were very critical of Equatorial Guinea, taking offence at the way the ZDF crew was treated. In response, Equatorial Guinean Prime Minister Ignacio Milam Tang expressed his disapproval to a German diplomat in Malabo.
President Obiang has been on the Reporters Without Borders list of Predators of Press Freedom for years. Our secretary-general met with Equatorial Guinea’s ambassador in Paris, Federico Edjo Ovono, in September 2009 to discuss the case of Rodrigo Angue Nguema, the correspondent of Agence France-Presse and Radio France Internationale, then held in Malabo’s Black Beach prison.
Flanked by French lawyers who represent President Obiang and the Equatorial Guinean government, the ambassador accused Reporters Without Borders of “knowing nothing” about the country’s reality and invited it to “reconsider the status of predator that you have attached to our president.”
Planning to visit Equatorial Guinea in April of this year in order to assess the situation of the media and press freedom in the country, Reporters Without Borders wrote to the ambassador in Paris informing him of its intention to request a visa. In a reply dated 11 March, the ambassador told Reporters Without Borders it would not be welcome in Malabo.
The letter said: “You will understand that we are unable to grant your request for a meeting with His Excellency the President of the Republic or the Government spokesman, and still less to issue you with a private invitation, as long as the offensive references to our President continue to appear on your website.”
Continuing his attempts to modify the editorial content of the Reporters Without Borders site, the ambassador added: “In our view, you cannot use such terms to refer to the President of the Republic of Equatorial Guinea and still less to refer to the Chairman of the African Union, who has been elected and recognised as such by his peers.”
The Predator of Press Freedom can be reassured. He will be able to receive his peers without being disturbed. But his regime, which has made Malabo inaccessible to journalists who might criticize or just describe his country’s reality, should keep a very close eye on the media attending the summit.