A human rights lawyer in Guinea Bissau, Luiz Vaz Martins, has expressed concern about the deteriorating press freedom environment in the country and urged the authorities to take steps to pull the country back from the brink of press freedom notoriety.
“At the moment, press freedom and freedom of expression are violated by the civil and military authorities. There is tangible evidence of an attempt to silence the press. The ransacking of private radio stations, threats against media workers, kidnapping and beatings perpetrated against media workers are illustrative enough of the decline in Guinea-Bissau in terms of freedom of the press and expression,” Luiz Vaz Martins told the MFWA in an interview in Bissau.
Martins is representing Adão Ramalho a reporter for the local broadcaster Radio Capital FM who was a victim of a brutal assault and attempted kidnapping on March 12, 2021, by five armed men in plainclothes in Bissau. Ramalho was covering the return of exiled opposition leader, Domingos Simões Pereira.
The journalist who managed to identify one of the attackers as Yaya Camara, allegedly one of President Cissoko’s guards, filed a criminal complaint on March 18, 2021.
Ramalho is one of five journalists that lawyer Martins represents in various cases related to their work. Among them is journalist and blogger Antonio Aly Silva who was kidnapped, beaten, and abandoned by unidentified attackers on March 9, 2021. His mobile phone was also seized. The journalist subsequently filed a complaint against X (a petition for an investigation to establish the identity of an unknown suspect)
“However, instead of investigating the assault on the journalist to identify the material and moral culprits of the kidnapping, the police instead conducted an investigation, at the request of the Presidency, into the communication content extracted from the victim’s mobile phone. This content has been splashed on social networks, which in itself is a criminal act,” Lawyer Martins fumed.
In other cases being handled by the human rights lawyer, it is senior state officials who have dragged journalists to court.
Nicolau Gomes Dautarim a journalist with Radio Bombolom who is being prosecuted upon a complaint by a senior official of the Ministry of Health in a case dating back to 2020.
Similarly, Sabino Santos, a journalist with Radio Capital FM is facing trial with the Director-General of the Customs Service as the complainant.
Sabino Santos is also being prosecuted alongside Sumba Nansil, journalist and Manager of Radio Capital-FM at the instance of the Electricity company.
Martins said he is compelled to defend these journalists by the fear that they could easily be shortchanged for lack of effective legal representation, which is often quite expensive.
“If journalists are sorely lacking the financial means to pay for my services, I as a human rights defender must defend them, because they are the object of political persecution,” he explained
“What is more, I felt that I should work towards ensuring that there is freedom of the press and of expression. I am convinced that if I succeed in winning this case, the other press professionals will have the courage to carry out their profession with dignity and impartiality and ethics.” Vaz Martins added.
The human rights activist for 30 years observed that “a democratic country is built with a free press which is able to educate and inform national public opinion.”
The Media Foundation for West Africa commends Lawyer Martins for his tireless work in defence of press freedom in Guinea Bissau which has come under siege.
On March 7, 2021, in a press release, Guinea Bissau’s journalists’ union and MFWA’s partner organisation, SINJOTECS, bemoaned the state of press freedom in the country. It cited among other incidents, the summary dismissal of Baducaram Imbenque, a journalist with the state broadcaster after he allegedly refused to sign a statement to discredit the SINJOTECS. The Journalists’ union had attacked the Management of the state broadcast service for suspending Imbenque, allegedly over his failure to interview President Umaro Cissoko after a ceremonial match among government institutions
We urge the authorities of Guinea-Bissau to ensure that the various officials and state institutions end legal proceedings against journalists, withdraw the charges against them. We also call on them to change their hostile attitude towards the media and promote press freedom to enable the media to contribute to nation-building and the fight against corruption.