March 2009 was special for many Bissau Guineans. It was the same month and year that a double tragedy hit the country in which the armed forces chief of staff General Batista Tagme Na Waie died in what appeared to be a targeted bomb blast at the army headquarters.
Then, a few hours later, the country's president was also killed, allegedly, by the elite forces of the army in what many people believe was a revenge attack for the death of the army chief. The president was accused of being the mastermind behind the blast that killed the army chief.
The rise and fall of a Bantaba Dinobas
Many in Guinea Bissau were yearning for a critical independent medium that could bring to public view the institutional corruption, the governance crisis and the aiding and abetting of transnational criminal activities by the country's elite, particularly the armed forces. It was the same month of March 2009, if not by miracle that a weekly newspaper, Bantaba Dinobas, hit the newsstands.
"I remember our first edition was all sold out in less than two hours then we had to reprint again to meet the demand" says the paper's founder and proprietor, veteran journalist Allen Yero Mballow. Indeed Bantaba Dinobas's first edition cataloged the gruesome killing of President Joao Nino Bernardo Vieira and quoted different sources alleging the complicity of the army in the incident.
The paper also wrote on the bomb blast that killed the army chief of staff, which according to its sources, came about as a result of a row between him and some Latin American drug barons who were using Guinea Bissau as a country for the shipment of cocaine to Europe.
On page 2 of the first edition was a column titled “The Bird’s Eye”, that listed political killings, and secret assassinations allegedly carried out under the orders of the State. The headline on Page 2 was bold and direct: “When shall state sanctioned Impunity End in Bissau?”
This was indeed a brave shift on the part of Bantaba Dinobas from the norm. At the very least, journalists in Bissau are timid in writing controversial stories on the military and the powerful elite.
Soon after the publication of the paper's first edition, Allen Yero Mballow and one of his reporters were summoned to the headquarters of the military high command. Mballow remembers the day in question vividly. In his words "we were detained and questioned for over six hours on the stories in Bantaba Dinobas, who our funders were as well as our sources and contacts in the government. But we refused to collaborate and the rest is now history."
The risks notwithstanding, Mballow and his team continued to publish critical stories that other publications were shying away from. In the meantime the popularity of the paper's “Bird’s Eye” column grew rapidly carrying hard-hitting headlines on everything ranging from government corruption to the narcotic trade with Latin America and Europe.
The country's leaders, particularly the military top-brass never took the criticisms in the “Bird’s Eye” lightly. "We received repeated threats to such a point that some of my reporters gave up" says Mballow. And as the threats grew, according to Mballow "they extended to companies advertising with us. They were all cowed to stop dealing with us as they were being accused of helping our paper to bring the image of the military into disrepute."
With virtually no advertisement and continuous harassment from the military, the paper was unable to pay its rent, salaries and other overheads. And as fate would have it, “The Bird’s Eye” was blinded.
"We were forced to drop “The Bird’s Eye” because the reporters in charge of the column all left. The other reporters were afraid to take over the column" says Kabi Camara, the paper's news editor. "Now we cannot even afford to appear in the newsstand regularly."
Bad environment for the press
The circumstances that befell Bantaba Dinobas newspaper are not unique. The situation of the media in Bissau is a story of a matrix cocktail of repression, persecution, official harassment and, to some extent, public rejection because of a lack of credibility.
Years of instability caused by civil wars and successive military coups have led to a severe weakening of the governance system in Guinea Bissau. As a direct consequence, the media caught up in the chaos have become the victims and hostages of the situation.
Since 1973 when Guinea Bissau became independent, no elected government has ever completed a full term without being overthrown. As a result, both the economic operators and the justice system are now protégés of the powers that be particularly the armed forces.
According to Fafali Kudao, a political analyst and professor of political science at Bissau's main university, "the lawlessness as a result of the indiscipline of our armed forces and the near collapse of the governance institutions has meant that freedom of expression and of the media cannot be guaranteed and respected in Guinea Bissau. Some members of the armed forces and indeed some senior government officials have grown too powerful because of their links with organised crime groups and syndicates. Reporting on such issues can be dangerous for any journalist."
Just a few days ago, anti-narcotic agents of the US Army, have arrested the former chief of the navy in Guinea-Bissau Rear Admiral Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto on a boat in international waters near Cape Verde. The Rear Admiral who is now being kept in a New York prison, is described by the US as a kingpin in Guinea-Bissau's huge drugs trade.
No tangible action has been taken to stop the use of the country as transit route for drug traffickers. "The fact that the US security forces could take the initiative to arrest Bubo Na Tchuto, is a serious indictment on the will of the entire system in Guinea from the judiciary to law enforcement to act against criminals and enablers of crime in the country" says Elvery Bass a human rights lawyer in Bissau.
"In our situation, the biggest causality is our democracy and by extension freedom of expression. As it stands, our media cannot bring the government to account because the armed forces that make and unmake governments here are the ones accused of complicity in the breakdown of law and order," Bass added.
Besides, the business community is fearful of now dealing with the media because of intimidation. Currently apart from the government daily newspaper No Pintcha, no newspaper has been in circulation since mid January 2013.
"The situation is very serious for us because currently there is no newsprints in Bissau. So the private newspapers are not printing. The business people who were importing newsprints have either stopped or have increased the price to such a level that no private newspaper can afford it,” said Mballow.
A similar situation happened from 2007 to 2008 when all the newspapers were forced from the streets because of lack of newsprints. The situation was only ameliorated when the Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF) intervened by providing nearly 30 tons of newsprints to the struggling newspapers in Bissau.
According to Mballow, "the difference between then and now is that there was not so much harassment of the business community and business people were not in this much fear as it pertains now."
Illiteracy: another threat to press freedom
But even if there was an enabling environment, the media, and particularly newspapers, will still continue to face a difficult task. According to a 2010 survey by the Press Union of Bissau, less than 1 percent of the population actually buys newspapers. This is because of the low level of education in the country.
Bissau is a country where a generation has grown up with limited literacy. Poor access to education has become a contributing factor to continued political instability. A painful cycle completes itself, as the state's fragility is an obstacle to strengthening the country's school system.
According to UNICEF, less than 20 percent of schools throughout the country offer the complete primary education cycle of six years. "This means that very few people are able to read the newspapers. They even hardly bother to buy them" says Professor Fafali Kudao.
"The media in Bissau is in serious need of help,” says Mballow. "We don’t want to sound like going around with a begging bowl but we definitely need proper training for our journalists, we need materials, but more so we need immediate support so that newsprints can be made available locally at an affordable price to enable newspapers to be on the newsstand once again. This is good for what is left of our democracy and for our people as well because they need to know what is being done in their name."