- Guinean security forces arrested the editor of one of the nation's leading private weeklies at his home in the capital, Conakry, this night. Authorities did not disclose charges against Mohamed Lamine Diallo, known by his pen name Benn Pépito, but local journalists believe the arrest could be linked to his journalism.
Security forces also searched Pépito's home, but nothing was confiscated, local sources told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based media watchdog. The journalist was being held at the headquarters of Conakry's security services, local media groups said in a joint statement today.
The 16 February edition of Pépito's newspaper, the private weekly 'La Lance', carried an editorial titled, "The situation in Lomé seen from Conakry," which compared the political situation in Guinea, where President Lansana Conté has ruled since 1984, to that of Togo, where the army moved to install long-time ruler Gnassingbé Eyadema's son as President following Mr Eyadema's death on 5 February.
Both late President Eyadema and President Conté "modified the law to prolong their grip on power," the editorial said, referring to steps by Mr Conté's Guinean government to extend presidential term limits. "Is there a risk that the scenario in Lomé could be replicated in Conakry?" The article also called for "a greater opening of the political system toward the true exercise of democracy" as the best guarantee of peaceful political transition in "our young states."
The questions raised by the editor of 'La Lance' are relevant to Guineans, given President Conté's poor health. The 71-year-old general is reported to have diabetes and heart problems and is physically reduced to such a degree that he can no longer walk unassisted. Guineans do not expect President Conté to live much longer.
The issue of President Conté's ailing health is however close to taboo in the national press as the regime wants to avoid speculations about his succession. The editorial article in 'La Lance' thus disregarded the self-censorship standards widely practiced by Guinean editors.
The timing of the article further was unlucky due to the current high security alert among the police and armed forces. Guinean security forces have arrested and questioned dozens of people following an alleged 19 January assassination attempt on President Conté, raising fears of a crackdown on the opposition.
As authorities will not state the reasons for Pépito's arrest, a second theory has emerged among his colleagues in the Guinean press. It is speculated that he was arrested in connection with the recent disappearance of Antoine Soromou, leader of the National Alliance for Development (AND) opposition party. Pépito had written several articles regarding Mr Soromou.
This theory was launched after it was known that the opposition leader's lawyer, Paul Yomba Korouma, had been arrested only hours after editor Pépito. AND leader Soromou disappeared shortly after the 19 January alleged coup attempt. His lawyer claims he was kidnapped by state security forces, while other put Mr Soromou in connection with the assassination attempt of President Conté.
The sudden arrest of the 'La Lance' editor is nothing new in Guinea, regarding how independent media are treated in the country. According to CPJ, Guinean authorities "frequently censor and harass critical publications."
Most recently, the government's National Communications Council (CNC) suspended the private newspaper 'Le Quotidien' in November 2004 and accused it of undermining "peace, tranquillity, and democracy." According to local sources, the suspension stemmed from an article in 'Le Quotidien' criticising the political and economic situation in Guinea.
The CPJ today joined Guinean colleagues in protesting the arrest of the 'La Lance' editor. "We call on Guinean authorities to explain why they are holding Benn Pépito and to make public any charges against him," CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said in a statement.
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