Authorities in Guinea-Bissau should drop their criminal defamation investigation into the privately owned broadcaster Radio Capital FM and two of its journalists, and reform its defamation laws, the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement.
On February 9, the public prosecutor’s office issued a summons to Radio Capital FM asking for a representative to present themselves for questioning, but did not specify why, according to Sumba Nansil, co-host of the “Tira Teimas” current affairs show on the broadcaster, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview, and a copy of the summons, which CPJ reviewed.
Capital FM owner and director Lassana Cassamá was out of the country at the time and Nansil responded to the summons on the station’s behalf, and was questioned by the public prosecutor’s office on February 16, the journalist told CPJ. On March 5, the office also summoned and questioned Sabino Santos, host of the station’s “Debate Nacional” program, Santos told CPJ in a phone interview.
Prosecutors questioned each journalist about comments they had made on-air and in media interviews about the state-run National Energy and Water Company (EAGB), which had filed a criminal defamation complaint against the station to authorities, Nansil said.
Nansil and Santos told CPJ that they had publicly noted that their station’s EAGB electrical meter had malfunctioned shortly before Radio Capital FM’s office was raided and vandalized on July 26, 2020, thereby disabling its security systems.
“Guinea-Bissau authorities should drop their criminal defamation investigation into Radio Capital FM and its journalists, and should let the outlet report freely,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, in New York. “The country should scrap its obsolete criminal defamation laws, and ensure that there are proper civil remedies to such issues, in line with the trend across Africa and the rest of the world.”
Under Article 126 of Guinea Bissau’s penal code, criminal defamation convictions can carry fines and prison sentences of up to one year; according to Article 127, if an offense is deemed to have been committed by an outlet as a whole, the prison term for those deemed responsible can increase to 18 months. The fine is set at a judge’s discretion and can total several thousand dollars, Luis Martins, a lawyer for Radio Capital FM, told CPJ via messaging app.
Martins said that both journalists were placed under travel restrictions while the defamation investigation is underway. Nansil and Santos are required to notify authorities if they intend to leave the capital, Bissau, for more than five days, according to Santos and news reports.
On July 26, 2020, unidentified armed men wearing the uniforms of Guinea Bissau’s National Guard attacked Radio Capital FM’s office and smashed its broadcast equipment, as CPJ documented at the time. Bubacar Turé, the vice president of the Human Rights League in Guinea-Bissau (LDHGB), a local rights group, told CPJ by phone that the investigations into last year’s attack on the radio station had not made any progress.
Namir Tavares, a spokesperson for EAGB, condemned the attack on Capital FM and told CPJ by phone that the journalists should not blame the electrical utility without proof, and said the company felt its reputation was harmed because of their comments blaming the power utility.
Tavares said that she and an EAGB technician had told Radio Capital FM representatives that the station’s electrical meter was not operating at the time of the attack because it had been tampered with.
Nansil told CPJ that Radio Capital FM had notified EAGB that the meter was not working three days before the attack, and that no EAGB technician was dispatched to fix it until after the station was raided.
“EAGB doesn’t want to be blamed, but it was its lack of service that left the radio station vulnerable, and the company should not sue for not wanting to hear the truth,” Nansil said.
Martins told CPJ that he believed the criminal defamation case was politically motivated, and was an attempt to harass Radio Capital FM, which he said is perceived to be critical of the government. Martins said he had provided the public prosecutor with “sufficient proof” that Nansil and Santos’s on-air comments were factual and supported by evidence.
Turé also told CPJ that he believed the investigation was the government’s attempt to restrict coverage by critical news outlets, and that the prosecutor’s office had acted surprisingly quickly to restrict the journalists’ movements “over something as fair as publicly stating EAGB’s energy cut before the attack was suspicious and convenient to assailants.”
Santos told CPJ, “after being the victims of the attack on the radio premises, of harassment and violence that weren’t seriously investigated by the authorities, Capital FM journalists fast became the suspects and culprits.”
Asked about the investigations into Santos and Nansil, as well as last year’s attack on Radio Capital FM, Queba Coma, a spokesperson for the public prosecutor’s office, told CPJ via messaging app that both investigations were in the inquiry phase and details could not be made public.
Previously, on March 18, 2020, Santos and another radio commentator faced a criminal defamation complaint over their discussion of a political leader alleged to have been connected to a coup attempt in Guinea-Bisssau, Santos said. That case was dismissed two days after its first hearing, after a court found that, given the context in which the remarks were made, they did not constitute a crime, Santos told CPJ.
Separately, on March 12, 2020, Radio Capital FM journalist Adão Ramalho was beaten and escaped an abduction attempt in Bissau, and in June 2020, Serifo Camara, an editor at the station, was attacked and robbed in an attack that he believed was reprisal for his work, as CPJ documented at the time.