Earlier in the month of September, a military coup in Guinea ousted the government of President Alpha Condé. Prior to the coup, Guinea had been on the radar for high incidence of attacks on journalists, media workers and media organisations. In the piece, Seth Bokpe of The Fourth Estate examines the relationship that exists between the military coup and the deteriorating press freedom situation in Guinea.
News of a coup d’état in Guinea grabbed global headlines and set social media blazing as images of the coup in West Africa country joined a wave of hashtags. But Guineans have been agitating against their perennial opposition leader who became President in 2010 but refused to leave office when his tenure ended.
Alpha Condé, an octogenarian, with a long history of fighting dictatorship in Guinea altered the constitution. It was a move that would have allowed him to stay in power for another 18 years after ‘winning’ the October 2020 elections. He would have become a centenarian if his next three terms end.
But soldiers, led by the leader of Condé’s presidential guard who would have fought external aggression did an internal operation to end Condé’s ambition.
Spontaneous jubilation greeted the overthrow of Condé on the streets of Conakry. The disgraced former AU leader was paraded on the streets of Conakry—a probable end to the political career of a man who started as a political ‘messiah’ but ended up as a villain.
During the 11-year tenure of Alpha Condé, the economy struggled, political agitations increased, and a crackdown on the media and dissenting views rose steeply.
But how did this contribute to this downfall?
The last 11 years have been very volatile for West Africa, giving the region notoriety for political unrest.
From February 2010 to September 2021, there have been at least 21 coups and attempted coups in eight countries—Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Benin and Cote d’Ivoire.
Six of those insurrections succeeded and 15 were nipped in the bud.
Guinea-Bissau’s military had been the most adventurous attempting seven times with one succeeding while Malian soldiers had been the most successful in executing putsches. Out of the four military uprisings, three succeeded in toppling the incumbent administration. Niger and Burkina have had coup attempts each with one success. In the last decade, Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, and Benin have each recorded an attempted coup.
Matching these numbers against the World Press Freedom Index, all the countries that experienced military overthrow in the region are competing for the bottom on the index when compared with other countries in the region. Although generally, freedom of speech has been under attack in recent times across the globe, most of these countries are among the worse in protecting the media, Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index indicates.
West Africa Press Freedom ranking in 2020 and 2015
Though Nigeria’s last coup was in the 1990s, the country is the worst-ranked at 115 out of 180 countries assessed in the 2020 global rankings. Africa’s biggest democracy is at the bottom of the table in West Africa. Benin, a country praised for its spectacular performance in the democratic area since 1993 has the second-worst ranking in the region at 113th. Both countries have in recent times seen the tightening of the noose around freedom of speech with Nigeria, banning Twitter, while Benin passed a digital code that criminalised speech. The code has been used to intimidate and jail journalists.
Guinea, which recorded the world’s latest coup is pegged 110th on the global table, and has the region’s third worse record in suppressing the media. Mali recorded two coups within a year. The Malian media there had to bear the brunt of a twin evil of jihadists attacks and government crackdowns. The country placed 4th from the bottom and 108th in the world in 2020.
It is obvious from the above data that countries that consistently record civil unrests gravitate towards violating media freedoms and eventually suffers putsches. It is, therefore, not a coincidence that Mali and Guinea recorded military uprisings consecutively.
Events in Guinea mirrors the sub-region in many ways. Data from Freedom House, suggests that the region that showed the fastest decline in political rights and civil liberties last year was West Africa, which has been a leading light in democratic gains.
Of the 12 countries with the largest year-on-year score declines around the world in 2019, no fewer than five are in West Africa—Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, and Nigeria.
In Freedom House’s classification of Free, Partly Free, and Not Free countries, Senegal and Benin fell from Free to Partly Free status, leaving Ghana and West Africa’s only island nation, Cape Verde, as the only Free countries in the region. Benin shed 13 points on the report’s 100-point scale, a loss Freedom House described as “a remarkable drop for any democracy.”
Guinea scored 41/100 and 43/100 on political and civil liberties in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Freedom House works to defend human rights and promote democratic change, with a focus on political rights and civil liberties.
In 2020, the country lost five points, scoring 38/100 in the same benchmark assessments.
Condé, a university professor, came to power in 2010 as the country’s first democratically elected leader since independence from France in 1958. Many had remarkably high expectations of the man who took a shot at the presidency twice in 1993 and 1998 but failed.
Until he entered the presidential palace, the respected human rights activist was a leading critic of a line of tyrannical leaders from Ahmed Sekou Toure, who ruled from independence in 1958 until he died in 1984; Lansana Conte, who seized power in a coup after Toure’s death; to Moussa Dadis Camara, who came through a coup after Conte’s death in 2008.
With a voice so loud in an environment that was feisty against dissent, his advocacy got him the death sentence during Toure’s regime and forced him into exile in France, where he took to lecturing at the Sorbonne University in Paris.
He even became a political prisoner during the era of his predecessor, Lansana Conte, who died in office in 2008. Stuck in decades of corruption and despotic rule, his compatriots and the international community saw Condé’s victory in 2010 as a fresh start for the resource-rich country.
During his inaugural speech, the man, who has seen dictators come and go sought to rally his compatriots and also to mirror the venerable South African icon and freedom fighter Nelson Mandela. Hear him:
“I will try in my small way to be Guinea’s Mandela and unite every son of Guinea. The restoration of social cohesion and national unity requires a collective look at our painful past.”
It was not to be. But he started well.
Seeking to live up to his human right and reformist credentials in his first term in office, his government initiated reforms in the military and prosecuted soldiers who committed right violations.
Economic reforms followed. Reforms in the mining sector from 2011 to 2013 revived an industry that was on its knees, leading to an increase of 27% in average production figures since 2015, the National Resource Institute figures indicate. Guinea is the world’s largest exporter of aluminium ore bauxite, yet the country is one of the poorest in West Africa.
The Condé administration also won billions in debt relief—the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank decided to support the country with $ 2.1 billion in debt relief, representing a 66% reduction of its future external debt service over a period of 40 years.
Joining a list of western-democracy poster boys, his reforms helped him warm his way to western leaders with an official visit to the United States under Barack Obama in 2014.
But by 2015, when he sought re-election, his critics pointed to his highly divisive politics with nothing to tick the box of the reconciliation he promised in his inaugural speech.
“He really tried to play on the ethnic divisions, which split the Guinean population,” Aljazeera quoted Ryan Cummings, the director of Signal Risk, a political risk management consultancy.
Although the country’s 2010 constitution guaranteed media freedom, Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Report in 2019 painted a rather gloomy picture of a country struggling to uphold freedom of expression in practice.
“A new criminal code adopted in 2016 retained penalties of up to five years in prison for defamation or insult of public figures, contributing to self-censorship among journalists. A cybersecurity law passed the same year criminalised similar offences online, as well as the dissemination of information that is false, protected on national security grounds, or ‘likely to disturb law and order or public security or jeopardize human dignity.”’
In the political space, Condé’s administration again continued excesses of the past.
“Security forces frequently attack rallies and protests organised by the opposition, making it more difficult for opposition parties to mobilize their supporters. The government also banned a number of demonstrations by opposition parties in 2018, including the October protest in which Diallo [opposition leader] alleges that security forces shot at his car,” the report stated.
According to the report, regulatory restrictions on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are not severe. However, Guinean civil society remains weak, ethnically divided, and subject to periodic harassment and intimidation.
On the judicial front, the report acknowledged some degree of independence since 2010, though it remains subject to political influence and corruption.
In September 2018, the president showed the head of the Constitutional Court, Kéléfa Sall, where power lies. The outspoken critic of President Condé was fired. The opposition suspected foul play and insisted it was a ploy for the President to initiate reforms that would allow him to tinker with the constitution for a third term bid. They would later be proved right.
Beyond the quantitative data analysis provided above, on the ground, abuses exist, and many have been well documented by the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA).
In August last year, Condé appointed by decree, Boubabacar Yacine Diallo as the country’s new head of media regulatory body, Haute autorite de la Communication (HAC). Media watchers described it as an attempt to control the Guinean media.
This followed new legislation passed in July 2013 which gave the president the power to choose the head of the media regulatory body. The head of the institution was previously appointed by his peers.
The new law also increased the president’s appointees on the board from one to three. Given that the HAC president, in turn, designates the heads of the authority’s five specialised commissions, the arrangement is feared to give the executive too much control over the media regulator.
However, analysts say the previous arrangement also failed to deliver results as the regulatory body was often criticised for not being proactive and robust enough in defending the media from violations by state actors.
On November 3, 2017, six media professional associations took on the HAC for what they described as the regulator’s total disregard for the media and deliberate abuses and oppression of private media.
On October 17, 2019, the Guinean police detained two Senegal-based Aljazeera journalists, Nicolas Haque, and Hugo Bogaeert, for several hours. Their alleged offence was that they were “spying and undermining state security”. Later, the HAC withdrew their accreditation for producing “ethnocentric reports”. However, in reality, the duo was deported for reporting on the protests against a potential third term for Condé.
On March 6, 2020, the government deported a French journalist, Thomas Pierre Dietrich. A day later, the Ministry of Security and Civil Protection explained that it had cancelled the journalist’s visa for “engaging himself in internal political activities liable to undermine public order”.
On October 18, 2020—election day in Guinea, the governor of the administrative region of Kankan forced four radio stations to shut down for picking a live feed from Conakry-based Sabari Fm which was broadcasting election results. Sanou Kerfalle Cissé, the president of the Union of Independent Radio and Television of Guinea (URTELGUI), had to intervene and insist that the results the station broadcasted were certified before they were allowed on air after hours of shutting down.
In April 2021, the Guinean authorities barred a group of journalists from holding a march in support of their detained colleague, Amadou Diouldé Diallo.
In May 2021, it took the MFWA and its partner in Guinea, the independent editors’ guild (AGEPI) to petition the Minister of National Unity and Citizenship of Guinea to plead with President Conte for the release of two journalists Ibrahima Sadio Bah and Amadou Diouldé Diallo. They were detained in connection with their work.
On August 12, 2021, Alpha Saliou Barry, a local councillor, in charge of the living conditions and sanitation commission of the District of Mamou attacked journalists of Global FM while they were live on air, for criticising his performance. Although he was charged for assault, the station withdrew the case for out of court settlement, following a written apology from the mayor of Mamou, Elhadj Amadou Tidiane Diallo.
The media had always been an avenue for the citizenry to vent their anger and frustrations but where even in democracies the media is muzzled, the citizens’ anger snowball into undesired consequences.
It is these voices of discontent that lend legitimacy to soldiers to ride on to topple the constitution as had been the case in Guinea and Mali and in recent times.
For the media to have any meaningful role in democracy and governance, it must be free and autonomous from government control. This is what is lacking in the subregion where increasingly, states are enacting laws aimed at cracking down on freedom of expression.
Rather than rally against the unconstitutional rule, the citizens of Guinea and Mali rejoiced because they believed the soldiers were on a rescue mission.
Sally Bilaly Sow, a member of the bloggers network AfricTivistes, summed this up in an interview with France 24:
“There had been a sense of hopelessness and a desire for change after President Alpha Condé’s takeover on October 18 last year [his election to a third term]. And now everything has changed in one fell swoop. We understood what was happening a bit better over the course of the day. We could call this coup, Coup 2.0, because the soldiers turned to messaging services to inform citizens about what was happening before using traditional media. Photos were first shared in WhatsApp groups and that’s how we found out what was going on.”
Admittedly, it has not been all doom for the region, while Ghana and Cape Verde continue to be the poster boys for free media, The Gambia is fast establishing its credentials as a new star. Four years after its despotic leader, Yahya Jammeh left office, extra-judicial killing of journalists no longer happen. Private broadcast media and online portals are adding to a pluralistic environment with the Barrow government reforming the legal frameworks guaranteeing freedom of expression and access to information.
Apart from Senegal which has never experienced any military takeover since independence, every country in West Africa has tasted a coup d’etat. But these coups have never outlived the media. It is, therefore, important that governments in the region recognise the media as partners in development rather than adversaries. This is because a critical media is better than a cocked gun pointed at a presidential palace.
A look at the countries dominating the bottom of the free speech table gives a clue as to which countries in the region must work harder to guarantee media freedom and ultimately keep their military in the barracks.
It appears Guinean leaders learnt that lesson a little too late.