The Reporters Without Borders 2013 World Press Freedom Index ranks Equatorial Guinea 166th out of 179 countries, a fall from its previous – and also low – ranking of 161/179. The Index ranks countries in order of their respect for media freedom, something Reporters Without Borders views as an indicator of whether the country protects or disregards its citizens’ human rights. Factors used in making this determination include: how easy or hard the government makes it to create independently owned, private media; whether government authorities are easily able to force the firing of a journalist; whether the procedure to obtain a professional journalist license is transparent; and whether the media is free to publish news concerning political power without reprisal. High placement on the Index indicates that a country maintains a favorable environment for news providers and journalists, while placement at the bottom indicates strong governmental control – absolute control, in some cases – of news and information. The low-ranking countries merit their score for a variety of reasons, such as imprisoning journalists, letting journalists die in detention, or harassment of journalists and their relatives.
Why is this Index important? The simplest reason is that a free press is linked to the freedom of expression – the ability to freely speak one’s mind – a basic human right guaranteed by numerous human rights instruments and treaties. The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, which Equatorial Guinea has signed and ratified, is an example of one of these instruments. The body entrusted with ensuring the protections found in the African Charter considers the freedom of expression an “inherent quality of a democratic and open society. It is the right of every member of civil society to be interested in and concerned about public affairs.” In this regard, the freedom of expression, and with it, press freedom, goes hand-in hand with government transparency; independence enables a press to investigate and report on government performance, allowing the public to become aware of corrupt public officials and be a more informed electorate. Government transparency enables citizens to participate in rational public debate and make informed decisions regarding their private lives. This awareness can lead to reforms, since the electorate will be better able to hold corrupt government officials accountable for their actions when visiting the ballot box.
Press freedom is also important so that the international community has a window into the day-to-day realities of government corruption in a particular country. Without a free press, government corruption can go undocumented. Companies looking to invest internationally should have a complete picture of the operating environments of potential locations before committing their resources, allowing them the chance to invest their dollars in transparent and accountable countries and to avoid feeding the cycle of corruption.
Such is the problem in Equatorial Guinea, where the government tries to attract foreign investors by touting its “positive acts” without acknowledging the bad, or allowing an independent press to investigate and report on actual conditions. For example, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the Second Vice President and son of President Obiang, was recently featured on Equatorial Guinea’s official government website for sponsoring a campaign to distribute over one million toys to the children of Equatorial Guinea. What is not found on the website, however, is any reference to the U.S. Department of Justice’s lawsuit that aims to seize more than $70 million of assets acquired using funds acquired from alleged money laundering in the United States, or to the French seizure of his property as part of its corruption investigation. In another instance, the government advertised Equatorial Guinea’s high GDP and claimed it is Africa’s top destination for foreign private investment. Yet, the government failed to mention that the same report claims that 75% of the population sees no benefits from the oil economy, and access to information about job openings is not easy to obtain. The lack of government transparency in Equatorial Guinea thus permeates not only the governance aspect of its citizens’ lives, but also their ability to earn a living and provide for their families.
Unfortunately, no truly independent and regularly produced media exists in Equatorial Guinea. The country’s TV and radio stations are owned or controlled by members of the Obiang family or its close associates, and the editor of the newspaper El Lector is an employee of the Ministry of Information. It is impossible, therefore, for citizens to turn to the press for reliable information about government performance.
The World Press Freedom Index highlights just one symptom of the ongoing corruption in Equatorial Guinea’s government. However, it is concerning because the drop in the country’s ranking indicates no progress has been made despite government claims to the contrary. The government of Equatorial Guinea needs to be held accountable for its continuous disregard of this basic human right.