Hanging in the Balance: Online and Offline Freedom of the Press in Guinea

By Simone Toussi |

Guinea’s media landscape boasts over 70 media outlets including streaming media, radio, television and print media. Yet still, the country does not score highly on international press freedom indices – it is ranked 107 out of 180 countries in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index. Nonetheless, the country’s growing internet penetration from 0.4% in 2010 to 33% in 2018 is favourable for the free flow of information through online spaces such as blogs and social networks.

Given the rapid growth of Internet users – from 42,000 users in 2010 to four million users in 2019  – the internet is fast becoming a  primary mode of accessing information for many people in the country. However, the government’s high-handed controls over traditional media are extending into the online sphere, evidenced by a series of arbitrary arrests and detentions, coupled with the persecution and judicial harassment of journalists and bloggers.

 A continuing persecution of journalists and the press outlets

In August 2019, the Guinean government placed two journalists, Lynx FM talk show host Souleymane Diallo and Lynx FM CEO and journalist Boubacar Alghassimou Diallo, under judicial control. The two were accused of “complicity in disseminating data likely to disturb public safety”. The allegations stem from an interactive radio show, during which an auditor accused a Guinean official of embezzling military bonuses related to a mission in Northern Mali. Under judicial control, the two journalists are prohibited from travelling outside of Guinea’s capital Conakry without authorisation from a judge. They are also not allowed to host the radio show in question until further notice, and are required to  appear in court three times per week. In the same month,, several press associations demonstrated against the state- led suffocation of the media.

Earlier in March 2019, Lansana Camara, a journalist with conackrylive.info, was summoned for “defamation by the press” after a complaint by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and elements in the Guinean diaspora. Camara was placed in custody for a week on allegations of publishing an article undermining the Guinean government. The article (deleted following his arrest) reported an alleged diversion of two billion Guinean Francs (GNF), equivalent to USD 215,700, that had been budgeted for fuel for the Guinean Department of Foreign Affairs.

Martine Condé, the President of the High Authority of Communication (HAC) –  the national independent media observer and regulator constituted under  Law N° L/2010/002/CNT/ of June 22, 2010 – denounced Camara’s incarceration as a flagrant violation of the law on freedom of the press. A similar press freedom reprimand was issued by the Guinean Association of Online Press (AGUIPEL) back in June 2018 after the arrest and detention of Mamadou Saliou Diallo, founder of Nouveleteeguinee.com, on accusations of “defamation and slander” following a complaint by Cheick Sako, the Minister of Justice.

But the HAC does not always appear to act in the interests of media freedom. In 2017, the HAC took a decision to suspend a private radio station, Espace FM, for seven days, accusing it of disseminating “information likely to undermine the security of the nation, the morale of the armed forces and public order”. HAC’s decision was pursuant to articles 39 and 40 of Law N° L/2010/002/CNT/ of June 22, 2010 on freedom of the press which states: “The High Authority of Communication exercises a right of general control over public, private and community media […]. When the provisions of the law on communication are not respected, [it] can take the following measures: warning, notice of default, suspension, permanent withdrawal.” The same year, a dozen journalists were assaulted by law enforcement officers, with reports of destruction of equipment and torture.

Previously in 2016, the Guinean press was shaken by the assassination of El Hadj Mohamed Diallo, a journalist for the news website Guinee7.com, during a political rally of Guinea’s main opposition party, the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG). To-date, the case remains unsolved, despite  investigations.

 An inadequate and flouted legislative framework

The Guinean Constitution guarantees  the right to freedom of expression, opinion, belief and thought, as well as freedom of the press as being inviolable, inalienable and imprescriptible. It also guarantees the right of access to public information. According to Article 7, everyone is free “to express, to manifest, to disseminate their ideas and opinions by speech, writing and image, […] to educate and inform themselves from sources that are accessible to all. Freedom of the press is guaranteed and protected. The creation of a press or media outlet for political, economic, social, cultural, sporting, recreational or scientific information is free. The right of access to public information is guaranteed to the citizen.”

However, there are a number of laws and policies that undermine the rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution.

The Organic Law N ° 002/22/06/2010 on the Freedom of the Press enacted in 2010, sets the conditions for press freedom and the creation of a free and independent media in Guinea. Article 1 explicitly guarantees the freedom of “the written press, the online press, publishing, printing, bookstore, audiovisual, photography, cinema and all other forms of communication”. Offenses by the press or by any other means of communication are outlined under Articles 98-122. The only penalties provided for under the law, upon conviction, are the payment of a fine (the maximum being 20 million GNF, equivalent to USD 2,200), and the suspension or withdrawal of a media outlets’ license, with possibility of appeal before the Supreme Court.

There are no provisions for possible imprisonment of journalists. For instance, the law states that, “defamation, by one of the means set out in Article 98, against the courts, the military and paramilitary bodies, the constituted bodies and the public administrations, is punishable by a fine between 1,000,000 GNF and 5,000,000 GNF (USD 108-540).”

However, the press law and Penal Code (1998) conflict with each other on some  press offences. Article 99 of the press law states that incitement to theft, murder, looting and offenses against the security of the state, with incitement followed by effect, is an offence and “perpetrators are punished as accomplices” in accordance with Articles 271 and 273 of the Penal Code.  Article 271 of the Penal Code provides for prison sentences of between 10-20 years while Article 273 provides for penalties of imprisonment of 16 days to six months, a fine of 50,000 to 100,000 GNF ( (USD 5.5 to USD 10.9) or both. Notably, neither the press law nor the Penal Code are cited during the prosecution of journalists and bloggers. Instead, authorities rely on the cyber security law.

Law No. 037 on cyber security and the protection of personal data was adopted in July 2016, “to define the rules and mechanisms to fight against cybercrime in Guinea and thus create a favourable, conducive and secure environment in cyber space”. However, it is criticised as a threat to democracy and the digital rights of Guinean citizens because it legitimises online censorship and appears to criminalise whistle-blowing. Indeed, it is this law, and not the press law, which is currently being used to persecute journalists. According to Mohamed Traoré, former president of the Guinean Bar Association, the cyber security law is “unenforceable” because it has not been registered and published in the Official Gazette.

Meanwhile, the Bill on Access to Public Information was approved at the Council of Ministers on July 26, 2019, but there has been no further action on it since then. The lack of an access to information framework negatively impacts journalism, and transparency and accountability in governance. Passing the bill into law would facilitate reliable sources of information for investigative reporting, as well as research, and enhance civic participation.

 Which way for a free press in Guinea?

Guinea’s press law reflects the political will to ensure a free, independent and pluralistic media in the country. Further, growing internet penetration has facilitated media diversity. However, persisting acts of repression and intimidation of journalists and bloggers are in total disregard of the Freedom of the Press Act which decriminalises press crimes, and online critics remain exposed to harsh penalties emanating from the cyber security law. In addition, the current inadequacy of the supporting legal framework, and stagnation of the bill on public access to information, limit media’s contribution to democratic governance. For a conducive freedom of expression environment to thrive in Guinea, it is imperative for the government to adopt an adequate legal framework and ensure its enforcement at all levels.

Why are African Governments Criminalising Online Speech? Because They Fear Its Power.

By Nwachukwu Egbunike |
Africa’s landscape of online free speech and dissent is gradually, but consistently, being tightened. In legal and economic terms, the cost of speaking out is rapidly rising across the continent.
While most governments are considered democratic in that they hold elections with multi-party candidates and profess participatory ideals, in practice, many operate much closer dictatorships — and they appear to be asserting more control over digital space with each passing day.
CameroonTanzaniaUgandaEthiopiaNigeria, and Benin have in the recent past witnessed internet shutdowns, the imposition of taxes on blogging and social media use, and the arrest of journalists. Media workers and citizens have been jailed on charges ranging from publishing “false information” to exposing state secrets to terrorism.
At the recent Forum of Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFA) held in Accra, Ghana, a group of panelists from various African countries all said they feared African governments were interested in controlling digital space to keep citizens in check.
Many countries have statutes and laws which guarantee the right to free expression. In Nigeria, for example, the Freedom of Information Act grants citizens the right to demand information from any government agency. Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution provides for freedom of the press and Section 39 maintains that “every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including the freedom to hold and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference…”
Yet, Nigeria has issued other laws that authorities use to deny these aforementioned rights.
Section 24 of Nigeria’s Cybercrime Act criminalises “anyone who spreads messages he knows to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another or causes such a message to be sent.”
Making laws with ambiguous and subjective terms like “inconvenience” or “insult” calls for concern. Governments and their agents often use this as a cover to suppress freedom of expression.
Who determines the definition of an insult? Should public officials expect to develop a thick skin? In many parts of the world, citizens have the right to criticise public officials. Why don’t Africans have the right to offend as an essential part of free expression?
In 2017 and 2016, Nigerian online journalists and bloggers Abubakar Sidiq Usman and Kemi Olunloyo were each booked on spurious charges of cyber-stalking in connection with journalistic investigations on the basis of the Cybercrime Act.

Don’t suffer in silence — keep talking

The very existence of these legal challenges tells citizens that their voices matter. From Tanzania’s prohibition on spreading “false, deceptive, misleading or inaccurate” information online to Uganda’s tax on social media that is intended to curb “gossip”, the noise made on digital platforms scares oppressive regimes. In some cases, it may even lead to them to rescind their actions.
The experience of the Zone9 bloggers of Ethiopia provides a powerful example.
In 2014, nine Ethiopian writers were jailed and tortured over a collective blogging project in which they wrote about human rights violations by Ethiopia’s former government, daring to speak truth to power. The state labeled the group “terrorists”for their online activity and incarcerated them for almost 18 months.

Zone9 members Mahlet (left) and Zelalem (right) rejoiced at the release of Befeqadu Hailu (second from left, in scarf) in October 2015. Photo shared on Twitter by Zelalem Kiberet.

Six members of the now liberated group made their premier international engagement in Ghana during FIFA conference: Atnaf Berhane, Befeqadu Hailu Techane, Zelalem Kibret, Natnael Feleke Aberra, and Abel Wabella were all in attendance. Jomanex Kasaye, who had worked with the group prior to the arrests (but was not arrested) also attended.
Several members had collaborated with Global Voices to write and translate stories into the Amharic. As members of the community, Global Voices campaigned and mobilised the global human rights community to speak out about their case from the very first night they were arrested.
After months of writing stories and promoting their case on Twitter, international condemnation of their arrest and imprisonment began to flow from governments and prominent human rights leaders, alongside hundreds of thousands of online supporters. From the four-compass points of the world, a mighty cry arose demanding the Ethiopian government to free the Zone9 bloggers.
In their remarks at FIFA, the bloggers said that their membership in the Global Voices community was key to visibility during their time in prison. In their panel session, they credited Global Voices’ campaign for keeping them alive.
Berhan Taye, the panel moderator, asked the group to recount their prison experiences. As they spoke, the lights on the stage dimmed. Their voices filled the room with a quiet power.
Abel Wabella, who ran Global Voices’ Amharic site, lost hearing in one ear due to the torture he endured after refusing to sign a false confession.
Atnaf Berhane recalled that one of his torture sessions lasted until 2 a.m. and then continued after he had a few hours of sleep.
One of the security agents who arrested Zelalem Kibret had once been Kibret’s student at the university where he taught.
Jomanex Kasaye recounted the mental agony of leaving Ethiopia before his friends were arrested — the anguish of powerlessness — the unending suspense and fear that his friends would not make it out alive.

Zone9 bloggers together in Addis Ababa, 2012. From left: Endalk, Soleyana, Natnael, Abel, Befeqadu, Mahlet, Zelalem, Atnaf, Jomanex. Photo courtesy of Endalk Chala.

With modesty, the Zone9 bloggers said: “We are not strong or courageous people…we are only glad we inspired others.”
Yet, the Zone9 bloggers redefined patriotism with both their words and actions. It takes immense courage to love one’s country even after suffering at its hands for speaking out.
Ugandan journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo, also in attendance at FIFA, shared an Igbo proverb popularised by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe which says:

Since the hunter has learned to shoot without missing, Eneke the bird has also learnt to fly without perching.

In essence, he meant that in order to keep digital spaces free and safe, those involved in this struggle must devise new methods.
Activists on the front lines of free speech in sub-Saharan Africa and across the globe cannot afford to work in silos or go silent in frustration and defeat. With our strength and unity, online spaces will remain free to deepen democracy through vibrant dissent.

Emerging Challenges and Data-driven Solutions for a Connected Future at FIFAfrica18

By Netblocks’ Writer |

At the 2018 Forum for Internet Freedom in Africa in Accra, Ghana, NetBlocks is demonstrating new tools and methodologies to defend human rights, empowering local communities and creating a space for open and progressive policies for internet access and telecommunications.

In a joint panel on data-driven advocacy on Friday, NetBlocks along with partners Access NowCIPESA, the GNI and ISF, soft-launched the Cost of Shutdown Tool, an initiative supported by the Internet Society which enables participants to calculate the economic cost of internet shutdowns, network disruptions and platform blocking in sub-Saharan Africa. Economic arguments have proven to be an effective means to bolster the case for human rights online with a view to development and prosperity, a trend which is being recognised and made accessible to internet freedom campaigners by way of the new initiative.

The panel explored how communities have been adopting new tools and developing new workflows as part of the KeepItOn initiative to support internet freedom across the continent, documenting recent incidents of network disruptions during elections in Mali and in Chad, as well as collecting bodies of technical evidence around disruptions in Ethiopia and Cameroon at critical moments for democracy and society.

Thursday saw the launch of the latest edition of The Internet Measurement Handbook, which provides civil society organisations and human rights defenders with practical technical and policy advice on managing internet disruptions, with a copy provided to each FIFAfrica participant.

NetBlocks director Alp Toker and advocacy manager Hannah Machlin demonstrated new internet freedom measurement techniques which present a more accurate, live view of emerging network incidents. Demonstrations and workshops provided a hands-on introduction to real-time internet freedom monitoring, web probes and internet-scale visualisation, which are now being adopted across the continent and globally as part of the internet observatory project.

Working with other civil society groups, the team explored issues around internet governance, internet protocols and their impact on human rights, free expression and trade, producing a series of new alliances and partnerships to strengthen digital rights and protect the integrity of elections regionally and worldwide.

Connecting data and human rights

Sessions over the course of three days have helped build a bridge between technical work to track restrictions on free expression online, connecting the personal experiences of victims of human rights violations with policy makers, governments and ICT industry stakeholders.

About FIFAfrica

Organised by the Collaboration for International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) in partnership with the Media Foundation West Africa (MFWA) the 2018 edition of the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa  takes place on 26-28 September 2018 in Accra, Ghana.

The Forum is a landmark event that convenes various stakeholders from the internet governance and online rights arenas in Africa and beyond to deliberate on gaps, concerns and opportunities for advancing privacy, access to information, free expression, non-discrimination and the free flow of information online on the continent.

With strategic linkages to other internet freedom forums and support for the development of substantive inputs to inform the conversations on human rights online happening at national level, at the African Union and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), the African Internet Governance Forum (IGF), subregional IGFs, the global IGF, Stockholm Internet Forum (SIF), the Internet Freedom Festival (IFF), the Internet Freedom Forum (Nigeria) and RightsCon, among others, FIFAfrica provides a pan-African space where discussion from these other events can be consolidated at continent-wide level, drawing a large multistakeholder audience of actors.

Q&A: Uganda Government Develops Social Media Guidelines

The internet and indeed social media plays a key role in improving communication between citizens, government-to-government interactions and at government-to-citizen level. Social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and MySpace, has the potential to improve governance and democracy practices.
Accordingly, the Uganda government through the National Information Technology Authority Uganda (NITA-U) has developed guidelines to “to facilitate secure usage of social media (Facebook and Twitter etc.) for efficient exchange of information across Government Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) as well as improving effectiveness of communication, sharing of information and open engagement and discussions with the public.”
On November 28, 2013 Leonah Mbonimpa, the Corporate Communications Officer at NITA-U spoke to CIPESA about the thinking behind the guidelines.
Q. What is the background to developing these guidelines?
A. Government has decided to utilise new channels to communication such as social media to communicate to citizens and give timely responses to emerging issues. In this vein, NITA-U was requested to develop guidelines to help government agencies to embrace social media while maintaining the same level of decorum as with traditional media.
Q. Why did the government find it necessary to draw up these guidelines?
A. Traditionally, Government agencies have been communicating through accounting officers such as  Permanent Secretaries. The advent of new media channels and the quest for speedy provision of information has necessitated the shift from traditional approaches to more flexible ways of communicating, [such as] using social media. Given that social media is relatively new and comes with a higher degree of responsibility when communicating, it was necessary to provide guidelines for government agencies to ensure that we communicate [appropriately].
Q. What do the guidelines intend to achieve?
A. They intend to achieve uniformity in communicating and ensure appropriate consultation is made before posting government communication online.
Q. How is users’ privacy protected in these guidelines?
A. The guidelines do not infringe on user privacy. They only seek to standardise the government’s approach to communicating to citizens online.
Q. Are there other initiatives in place or under development by government to protect freedom of expression and privacy online.
A. NITA-U is in preparatory stages of drafting a Data Privacy bill which will eventually be enacted into law to comprehensively address privacy issues.
Further details about the guidelines are available here http://www.nita.go.ug/index.php/features/315-socialmediguide

Monitoring Internet Openness in Africa

With internet usage continuing to spread across Africa, there are numerous purposes to which African users are putting the internet – from mobile banking, to connecting with fellow citizens and with leaders, tracking corruption and poor service delivery, innovating for social good, and just about everything else.
The increasing usage of the internet, however, has in some countries attracted the attention of authorities, who are eager to provide caveats on the openness of the internet and the range of freedoms which citizens enjoy online. The popularity of social media, the Wikileaks diplomatic cables saga and the Arab Spring uprisings have led many governments including those in Africa to recognise the power of online media.
The year 2012 saw a number of African states put curbs on Internet Rights, in what portends tougher times ahead for cyber security. According to the Freedom on the Net 2012 report published by Freedom House, both physical and technical mechanisms of filtering, monitoring or otherwise obstructing free speech online have been employed by states concerned with the power of internet-based technologies.
In its study, Freedom House covered developments in internet freedom in 47 countries around the world.  Based on an examination of obstacles to access, limits to content, and violation of user rights on the internet, countries were scored as ‘Free’, Partly Free’ or ‘Not Free’. The study found that in Sub Saharan Africa, Ethiopia was the only country to implement nationwide internet filtering. Meanwhile, South Africa and Kenya were reported as the most free. The former was credited for its high internet usage compared to other countries at the same level of development and the latter for its “growing diversity in content and fewer cases of arrest or censorship than in previous years.”
Ethiopia was reported as using paid pro-government commentators to manipulate internet discussions. There were also crackdowns and prosecutions of online,journalists as well a law that since 2002 prohibits the use of VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol). In Zimbabwe, regime critics were said to often be faced with politically motivated cyber attacks.
Even Kenya, all its ICT sector positives notwithstanding, was reported as one of the governments seeking “less visible means” to control internet freedoms. The Country’s communications regulatory is reportedly setting up a surveillance system to monitor email communications due to cyber security threats. Pending legislation in South Africa, which requires telecommunications service providers to broaden their surveillance obligations, was also noted as having the potential to mass monitor communications.
Despite having relatively low restrictions on internet usage, Rwanda was reported as a ”country at risk” in 2013 owing to its “strict” controls over traditional media which are feared may extend to digital media.
Freedom House ranked Nigeria, Uganda, and Zimbabwe as ‘Partly Free’.
In 2013 through to 2014, CIPESA will be undertaking a project to monitor and promote internet freedoms in Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa and Uganda. We shall be reporting on legal regimes on internet openness or the lack of it, censorship incidents and African initiatives that are promoting internet rights, among others.
Read more about CIPESA’s Internet Governance and Online Freedoms work.