In the Guinean capital, Conakry, journalists and civil society leaders have been discussing the role of the media in fostering stability during upcoming legislative polls. Relatively new to democratic elections, the West African country has seen violent clashes stemming from political rivalries, and the slightest rumor or partisan report can spark trouble.
The political divide in Conakry is such that a friendly debate on current affairs among university-educated young men can turn quite heated. This discussion, over traditional sweet tea, had its rowdy moments. But it all ended with laughs and handshakes.
Friendly debate is not always the norm in Conakry, where deep government-opposition rivalry, coupled with dire living conditions, has time and again prompted violence in the streets.
Most recently, in May, the opposition staged protests - deeply suspicious of the government's intentions in the upcoming parliamentary election. They resulted in two days of deadly clashes.
Guineans say the media - especially in the run-up to the September 24 legislative poll - has a pivotal role in ensuring that a tense climate does not degenerate into chaos. But is a tense climate reason to restrain coverage? Local journalists walk a fine line.
In 2010, Guinea entered a political transition with its first-ever open and transparent presidential election. The change opened the way for greater press freedom, but repression is still a problem. The global press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders says authorities have often pointed to the country’s social “fragility” as a pretext for stifling the media. Some Guineans say some local reporters, though, indeed exploit social and ethnic divisions, and must take care not to do so.
"I listen to certain radio broadcasts, I’m terrified. I don’t want to go out for fear of being attacked," said Ibrahima Kalil Condé, who works for a logistics firm in Conakry. "Some broadcasts sow terror and hatred among Guineans, and this is what journalists absolutely must avoid."
Condé said he has heard radio interviews or man-on-the-street exchanges that include insults against certain ethnic groups. He said such broadcasts appear intent on provoking, not informing.
But radio station director Cherif Papus Gono said that while there is some misconduct in the media, Guinean citizens are becoming more discerning. He said the people are increasingly able to distinguish between objective and non-objective media outlets and reporters.
The international NGO Search for Common Ground, the U.N., and other institutions are holding forums in the run-up to legislative polls, in part to discuss the “social responsibility” of the media.
Mohamed Condé is secretary-general in Guinea’s communications ministry. He said in Guinea “social responsibility” means journalists taking into account the country’s unique socio-political context as they report and diffuse information, and this could mean holding back information likely to provoke unrest.
Bangaly Camara is director of Guinea’s Institute of Information and Communication, where he trains local journalists. He said journalists are reaching thousands of people at a time, and what they must understand is that first and foremost they are citizens, and it is not at all in their interest to fuel tensions. If journalists dissect candidates’ campaign messages and help voters make an informed choice, he said, they will have played their role and all Guineans come out ahead.
Guinea has scores of private radio and TV stations and websites. In a country where about 60 percent of the population is illiterate and recurrent power cuts make television-watching rare, most people get their news from radio.
In a 2011 report, Reporters Without Borders
said Guinean media remain riven with ethnic divisions, and state media gave very limited play to the opposition. And there are continued concerns about crackdowns on journalists.
Guinea is ranked 86th out of 179 countries in Reporters Without Borders
yearly press freedom index.