Political actors in Guinea Bissau must preserve the country’s fragile democracy

The Media Foundation for West Africa MFWA strongly condemns the recent act of mutiny by elements of the security forces in Guinea Bissau. We call on all actors in the country’s political space to preserve the country’s fragile democracy and uphold human rights including the right to press freedom and freedom of expression.

We have followed with increasing concern, the events of Thursday, November 30, 2023, when some officers of the National Guard broke into police cells to free finance minister Souleiman Seidi and treasury secretary Antonio Monteiro. The two, who are members of the opposition PAIGC party, had been taken into custody after being questioned in parliament over their alleged improper withdrawal of $10m from the state treasury.

We find extremely worrying this development, which led to two days of sporadic shooting, including skirmishes near the presidential palace, in what is believed to be an attempt to subvert the government. At least two people died in the process, according to reports.

We also note with disappointment that the suspected attempt to overthrow the government has led to the dissolution of Parliament by the Head of State. Having been elected only last June, the premature dissolution of the opposition-dominated Parliament is liable to disrupt Guinea Bissau’s already delicate democratic stability.  Only one elected president has completed a full term since independence in 1974.

Against the background of the earlier abortive coup in February last year and in view of Guinea Bissau’s struggle over the years to establish democratic stability, the MFWA finds the recent military adventurism ill-conceived and unacceptable.

It is reassuring that calm has returned to Bissau since Monday, December 4, following the arrest of the alleged ringleaders. We, however, urge the authorities to follow due process and ensure that the rights of the suspects are not violated.

The ECOWAS region has recorded six military takeovers over the past three years; two each in Burkina Faso and Mali, one in Guinea and the latest being the July 26, 2023 putsch in Niger.

Invariably, the media and the civic space feature among the biggest casualties of these coups. Several media outlets, especially foreign channels and their correspondents have been suspended or banned in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. On May 3, 2023, for instance, the MFWA and 29 other organisations around the world addressed an open letter to a number of UN bodies, the African Union, and ECOWAS leaders calling for improved protection for journalists and the promotion of freedom of expression in Burkina Faso and Mali.

We therefore call on all progressive forces in Guinea Bissau to stand up for democracy in order to protect basic human rights including press freedom and freedom of expression in that country. Accordingly, we urge the government and the opposition to avoid any acts that could restrict the civic space or undermine the independence of the media and the safety of journalists.

To this end, we appeal to all parties not to interfere with the work of the state broadcaster.  For example, on December 4, a group of armed men went to the national radio and television stations and ordered all the workers to leave while the stations played only music. But to play music the stations needed some technicians to stay on duty, which the soldiers refused, and therefore, got the transmissions turned off for almost the entire day. We are also reliably informed that the Director of the National Radio Service, Baio Danso, has been summarily dismissed and replaced by Mama Saliu Sane, the former director who was himself removed after the opposition won the June 2023 legislative elections. This kind of chess play with the leadership of the national radio is regrettable and counter-productive, as the sudden changes distract it from fulfilling effectively its mandate as a public-interest broadcaster.

We reiterate our call on all the political actors in Guinea Bissau to commit to protecting the country’s fledgling democracy as a foundation for a united, peaceful and prosperous country. We also urge the media to navigate this delicate phase of Guinea Bissau’s political life with the necessary tact, maturity and sensitivity in order to promote cohesion and conciliation.

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