February 2020 in West Africa: Two Dead, Internet Disrupted and State Broadcaster Shutdown

The freedom of expression environment in West Africa in February 2020 saw little improvement on that of January with incidents of deaths, detentions and internet disruptions.

A fatal shooting of a protester was recorded in Guinea, a journalist succumbed weeks after being assaulted by soldiers, the internet was disrupted during elections in Togo and Guinea Bissau’s military invaded the premises of the national broadcasting service and shut it down.

Killings

Broadcast journalist, Zenu Miller died on February 15, three weeks after reporting that President George Weah’s body guards had attacked him at the Samuel Kanyon Doe (SKD) Stadium in Monrovia. The former OK FM staff, who was beaten on January 26, 2020, was pronounced dead a few hours after he was rushed to the Elwa Hospital, following a sudden deterioration in his condition. Miller left behind a wife and a son.

On February 17, security forces in Guinea shot and killed a student protester in the town of Lola. Saa Étienne Ouendino died on the way to the hospital after being hit by a bullet in clashes between security forces and high school students who were demonstrating to demand an end to a teachers’ strike.

Shutdown

On February 29, 2020, soldiers close to Guinea Bissau’s elected President, Umaro Sissoco Embalo, occupied the premises of the RTGB, after evacuating the staff, thus grounding both the radio and television services. The soldiers’ action followed the refusal of the national broadcasting service to cover the inauguration ceremony of President Embalo whose second-round victory in the country’s December 29, 2019 elections is being contested at the country’s Supreme Court by the rival candidate Domingos Simoes Pereira and his party, Parti africain pour l’indépendance de la Guinée et du Cap-Vert (PAIGC).

Internet Disruption

On February 22, Togolese went to the polls in a much-anticipated presidential election that eventually extended the mandate of incumbent President Faure Gnassingbe for another five years. While the elections went on peacefully without any press freedom violations, the authorities disrupted the internet. Social media networks such as Facebook and Messenger were inaccessible in several parts of the country beginning at 17:00 GMT. Twitter and WhatsApp were, however, partially accessible.

Freedom of Assembly Violation

Still in Togo, security forces used truncheons to beat and disperse demonstrators who were gathering in front of the Saint Joseph College in Lome on February 28,2020. The opposition supporters had gathered in response to the call of the Archbishop Emeritus of Lomé, Philippe Kpodzro, to demonstrate against the results of the country’s presidential elections held a week earlier. One person was arrested, then released later in the day, while several others were wounded as a result of the attack.

Arrest/Detention

On February 14, the police arrested Yamoussa Lansana Sylla, a member of the opposition Union des forces republicaines (UFR) after he posted comments on Facebook in which he appeared to mock Guinea’s Prime Minister and express opposition to President Alpha Conde’s bid for a third term in office. Sylla was detained until he was arraigned in court on March 4, 2020, on charges of defamation and incitement to violence. The court granted him provisional release and adjourned the case to march 11.

On February 19, three women were arrested and detained during a demonstration called by the Front national pour la defense de la constitution (FNDC), the group leading the campaign against President Conde’s attempt to seek a third term. Nene Camara, Yarie Camara and Mariam Diallo, all of them activists of the FNDC, were accused of “directly inciting a mob” during the demonstration in the Conakry suburb of Bonfi. They were still in detention as of the end of February.

On February 21, Mamadou Aliou Diallo, a journalist working with the news website Zone Afrique and Agronews TV was arrested by officers of the mobile intervention force, Compagnie mobile d’intervention et de securite (CMIS) in the Guinean capital, Conakry. The journalist was filming officers of the motor traffic police extorting money from motorists at a discreet distance when officers of the CMIS spotted him and arrested him.

On February 26, 2020, six members of Alliance pour la Refondation de l’Etat Mauritanien (AREM), a movement advocating for political and social reforms in Mauritania, were arrested and jailed in Mauritania for calling for political reforms. The police searched the activists’ phones and found a WhatsApp discussion in which the members denounced certain cultural and religious practices in Mauritania and called for reforms. They were charged with attacking Islam and promoting terrorism. A seventh member was released under judicial control conditions after the arrest; her movements are monitored and she is required to report to the authorities on a regular basis.

 Censorship

On February 22, the administrative and law enforcement authorities prevented Alpha Ousmane Bah and Kossa Sow, who work with the news website Africaguinee.com and Espace FM radio, respectively, from reporting on the plight of truck drivers stranded on the Guinea-Senegal border as a result of a ban on overland importation of goods by the Guinea government. After being unduly delayed at the Guinea border and subsequently, at the office of the Prefect of the border town, the journalists ended their cooperation with the authorities and decided to proceed with their mission. They were, however, prevented from crossing the border by security officers who said they had been instructed to do so.

Threat

On February 27, 2020, Edward Adeti, a journalist with A1 Radio, based in Bolgatanga in the Upper East Region of Ghana, reported to the police that he has been receiving threats  and being stalked by unknown persons. Adeti said he believed the threats are linked to his investigative video titled “Cash for Justice” which implicated a Principal State Attorney in a bribery scandal. In response, the Regional Police Command has deployed security officers to monitor the journalist’s home.

Other Developments

On February 26, Prof. Aaron Oquaye, Speaker of the National Assembly of Ghana warned that he would prevent journalists from covering the House if they decide to prioritise any other issue over proceedings in the Chamber. The warning came a day after the press corps went out of the Chamber to interact with an opposition Member of Parliament while the House was holding a plenary discussion on the State of the Nation address delivered a few days earlier by President Akufo-Addo. The opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC) party had boycotted the proceeding.

On February 29, 2020, two journalists, Samuel Ogundipe and Musikilu Mojeed, reporter and editor respectively working for the online newspaper Premium Times in Nigeria were forced to go underground after receiving intelligence that the DSS is on the hunt to arrest and intimidate them to reveal their sources. Samuel Ogundipe and Musikilu Mojeed, published a story suggesting a power struggle between President Muhammadu Buhari’s security chiefs. The story cited a leaked memo from the National Security Adviser, Babagana Monguno, instructing all service chiefs to stop taking instructions from President Buhari’s Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari. Following the story, security agents were spotted surveying the residences of the journalists, apparently in an attempt to arrest them.

Security agents have been surveying the residences of the two journalists in an apparent attempt to arrest them.

On February 13, Agba Jalingo, Publisher of the Cross River Watch newspaper was granted bailafter 174 days of detention. The journalist was arrested on August 22, 2019, after he published a report alleging that the Cross River State government had diverted monies allocated in the State budget for the establishment of a community bank. He spent a total of 174 days in police cell and in prison as his trial raged on. A Federal High Court in Calabar granted the journalist N10 million (USD 27, 300) bail, following a successful application by his lawyer, Attah Ochinke.