Freedom of the Press
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The 32-year-old regime of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo continued to control Equatorial Guinea’s media with a heavy hand in 2011. Already one of the most censored countries in the world, the government attempted to enforce a total blackout of news related to the prodemocracy demonstrations that swept the Middle East and North Africa beginning in early 2011, and cracked down on journalists that defied the ban. In addition, an African Union (AU) summit held in Malabo, the capital, in June and a constitutional referendum held in November led to further repression of the media and restrictions on press freedom.
Freedoms of expression and of the press are legally guaranteed, but these rights are ignored in practice. As in past years, the government relied on its extensive powers under the Law on the Press, Publishing, and Audiovisual Media to severely restrict the press. By law, the government has prepublication access to materials, which encourages self-censorship. Although journalists in recent years have been permitted to voice mild or vague criticism of government institutions, criticism of the president, his family, other high-ranking officials, and the security forces is not tolerated; for example, journalists were unable to report on the multiple international criminal investigations into alleged money-laundering by the president’s son. There are no laws guaranteeing freedom of information. Local journalists and private publications are required to register with the government through a prohibitively complex and bureaucratic process.
Almost all local coverage is orchestrated or tightly controlled by the government, and state-controlled media do not cover international news unless the president or another official travels abroad. Several acts of direct government censorship related to the Arab Spring, the AU summit, and the constitutional referendum were evident in 2011. In February, Information Minister Jeronimo Osa Osa issued a directive to the state radio and TV broadcaster, RTVGE, not to cover the unrest and demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt. At the AU summit in June, there were reports that “suspect” journalists were restricted from covering the proceedings, and the reporting that took place was closely monitored. The referendum in November, in which 97.7 percent of voters approved constitutional changes that would further enhance the powers of the presidency, was marred by a lack of media coverage of opposition viewpoints. Nongovernmental organization EG Justice reported that the full text of the changes was never made available in the print media.
Several journalists who defied the directives and bans suffered serious consequences. In February 2011, Juan Pedro Mendene, host of the RTVGE French-language radio program “Détente,” was taken off the air and was reportedly assaulted for mentioning the uprising in Libya during his show; however, the situation in Libya was reported to have been discussed widely on radio and television programs, as well as in the new independent newspaper, El Lector. Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, a blogger and editor of the literary magazine Atanga, reported being harassed when he started a hunger strike in February to protest government policies, and he later left the country for Spain. Foreign journalists are not able to report freely, and at times are denied visas. In June, a film crew for German television broadcaster Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, in the country to film stories about “women’s soccer and the general state of affairs of the country,” was detained, had its footage confiscated and destroyed, and was forced to leave the country for portraying the country in a bad light.
The most influential medium is radio, but all domestic radio and television stations are operated by the government or members of the president’s family. Applications to open private radio stations have been pending for several years but remained unapproved. At the same time, uncensored satellite broadcasts are increasingly available to those who can afford the service. The government operates at least two newspapers, while a handful are published by nominally independent figures or members of the small political opposition. The founding of El Lector was approved in December 2010, but it was published infrequently throughout 2011. The country has little of the infrastructure necessary for independent media to operate, such as printing presses and newspaper retailers, and the lack of a well-developed local private sector hinders the ability of media outlets to raise revenues through paid advertisements. Due to low literacy rates, international print media is generally unavailable in rural areas.
An estimated 6.3 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2011, according to Internet World Stats. While the government does not overtly restrict internet access, due in part to a lack of basic internet and mobile phone infrastructure, a large drop in online visits in 2011 by Equatoguineans to Afrol News, an African online news service often critical of the Obiang regime, has fueled speculation that the government may be attempting to block this site. There are no credible reports that the authorities monitored e-mails or internet chat rooms. According to the U.S. State Department, the internet has replaced broadcast media as the primary medium for opposition views.