Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Media freedom becomes casualty of Guinea crackdown

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 12 February, 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.
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 Monday for Conte to step down, soldiers in red berets burst into its offices, destroyed equipment and detained its top journalist and a technician.
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 Without Borders.
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 around the head and burned with cigarettes.
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.
(Source: Reuters/R Netherlands Media Network Weblog)