On November 24, 2019, people in Guinea Bissau voted to elect a new President. Twelve presidential candidates were listed, including the incumbent President José Mário Gómes Vaz. The winning candidate has not been announced as of yet, but nearly two weeks before the start of the campaigning, two private radios stations were shut down by the authority in the country.
Despite several calls on the government from freedom of expression groups to reopen the two radio stations, nothing has been done. Shutting down the stations violates the rights of the population to freedom of expression, in particular during this time when the country is heavily monitoring the presidential election. Access to information is so key for the electorate to make informed decisions.
The Autoridade Reguladora Nacional (National Regulatory Agency (ARN) closed Africa FM’s two stations in Bafata and Buba, two cities 150 km and 221 km respectively from the capital, Bissau on October 21, 2019.
This is the second time in seven months that the Bafata station of Africa FM has been closed. On April 2, 2019, security forces closed the station on the orders of Dundu Sambu, the Governor of the region in the aftermath of parliamentary elections held in the country on March 10, 2019.
Giving reasons for the recent action, Djibril Mané, chairman of the ARN, said the stations were closed because “they are operating without a license, and therefore, are not in good standing with the ARN.”
Related: Freedom of Expression and the Impunity Challenge in West Africa
Africa FM, which operates two stations, is known to be critical of the government headed by President José Mário Gómes Vaz. This, coupled with the timing of the action, undermines the credibility of the reason given by the regulatory body for the closure.
The MFWA’s partner organisation in Guinea Bissau, Sindicato de Jornalistas and Técnicos de Comunicação Social (SINJOTECS), which is the country’s major journalists’ union, has said the reason given for the closure of Africa FM is unconvincing. It has consequently called for transparent and non-discriminatory enforcement of the licensing regime.
The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) joins its partner organisation in Guinea Bissau to condemn the continued closure of two radio stations in the country, and reiterate the call on the authorities to allow the media outlets to resume broadcasting.
The MFWA and SINJOTECS urge the ARN to make public the status of all broadcasting organisations in Guinea Bissau in terms of their compliance with their obligations to the authority. This is the only way to prove that Africa FM has not been targeted for its critical editorial line.
In the absence of the required transparency in the exercise, the shutdown of the two radios stations can only be perceived as deliberate attempts by the authorities to muzzle dissident voices. Thousands of Bissau Guineans depend on Africa FM for information and education on important issues affecting their lives and this closure unduly punishes them and limits their participation in the electoral discourse.
We therefore call on the authorities to reopen the stations to allow them to play their role in the electioneering period while engaging the management of the media organisation to settle any issues amicably.