With the death on Monday of Guinean President Lansana Conté,
hangs over what--or who--is to follow. Yet, as recently as last week, coverage of
the poor health of the reclusive autocrat, who ruled this mineral-rich but poor
West African nation since 1984, proved risky for the Guinean independent media.
Ask Souleymane Diallo, a veteran journalist and press leader
in Guinea, who was summoned to the office of a presidential guard officer on
December 17 to discuss his weekly La Lance
's decision to publish a front-page
showing a weak, haggard Conté. "We wanted to bring, at a minimum,
some clarity about [Conté's] health because for a week we have been receiving
phone calls every night telling us President Conté is dead," Diallo told CPJ
earlier this week. Instead, the presidential guard told Diallo the
photo was "shocking," he said.
Guinean journalists like Diallo were harassed for attempting
to pierce the secrecy surrounding the late president's deteriorating health,
which fueled constant rumors. Speculations abounded in October
2006, for instance, when Conté failed for the first time to appear on
national television for his annual Independence Day address. State-controlled
daily Horoya published written remarks instead, but journalists Ibrahima
Sory Dieng and Alhassane Souare were suspended--officially for what was termed a
"serious mistake"--after failing to run a photo of Conté with the story. More
recently, in May, Conté's government suspended
the weekly La Croisade for two months and banned its editor, Fadjimba
Sayon Keita, for the same period over a story discussing the health of the former
On Tuesday, as the army seized control of the capital, Conakry, about 15 tanks
surrounded the main studios of the national, public broadcaster Radio
Télévision Guinéenne, said one reporter who spoke on condition of anonimity.
Soldiers invaded the studios and took over programming. Several journalists
said the state TV channel is now running only music and the official statements
of the coup's leaders. The military has often seized control of the network's
programming to address the population during political crises, as it did in February
Independent Guinean journalists I have spoken with said the
situation was calm, but confusing. With no commercial activity and people
staying at home, most radio stations in Conakry
and the eastern town of Kankan
were playing music, broadcasting official statements by the military, or
re-broadcasting foreign news reports about the situation, the journalists said.
Private newspapers, which have been significantly crippled by high printing
costs and low readership, could not be sold yesterday, according to editor
Ismaël Kabinè Camara.
With the traditional media virtually paralyzed, Guinea's
electronic media, including a handful of news Web sites based outside of the
country such as Africaguinee
and GuineeConakryInfo, has
emerged as the leading source of regular updates from reporters on the ground.
As the only source of news to escape media censorship and repression during
Conté's reign, this vanguard of online media may ironically own the coverage of
these first days after his death.