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(New York) – The government of Equatorial Guinea, which is co-hosting the Africa Cup of Nations later in January 2012, cracks down on political opponents, intimidates journalists, and disregards due process, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said today. Some visiting journalists who have tried to report on Equatorial Guinea over the past year have been detained, interrogated, censored, and deported.

These incidents do not bode well for the sports reporters who are expected to attend the opening ceremony in the city of Bata on January 21 and other matches there and in Malabo, the capital. President President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo said on January 3 that he views the games as an opportunity to “sell the country’s image.”

“Hosting international events is one way to charm foreign visitors and try to impress the media, but these are superficial and don’t withstand scrutiny,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The only way President Obiang can really improve his reputation is by reversing his decades of misrule and allowing genuine human rights reforms.”

Intimidation and Detention of Journalists
In one incident that may foreshadow difficulties for the coverage of the forthcoming Africa Cup of Nations, a television crew from Germany’s ZDF network who were reporting in June 2011 on women’s soccer and other issues in Equatorial Guinea were detained, interrogated at length, subjected to censorship, and deported.

As described in an account by the ZDF team’s producer, security agents seized their footage and ordered any “negative” images deleted or confiscated. These included footage of children playing soccer in one of Malabo’s slums and interviews with the sole member of parliament from the political opposition and a human rights lawyer. The next morning, the journalists were escorted to the airport to leave the country. The ZDF crew had been working with an official visa and the support of government ministries.

Some other foreign journalists who traveled to Equatorial Guinea before and during the June 2011 African Union (AU) summit meeting, held in Malabo, have described to Human Rights Watch incidents in which they were briefly detained and forced to delete photographs, despite having been granted press permits by the government.

An Associated Press photographer was taken to the police station for snapping photos in a public market in Malabo and was ordered to remove the images from her camera, and released only after she did. A photographer working for the US public relations firm hired by the government to improve its reputation was himself briefly detained after taking a photo of the AU summit venue, journalists reported.

In March, the host of a state-radio program was removed after mentioning Libya during a broadcast, in violation of a temporary news blackout the government had imposed in February on the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring, CPJ reported.

“President Teodoro Obiang’s government routinely invites journalists into the country, only to restrict their movements in an ongoing effort to deceive the world and promote a pristine image,” said Mohamed Keita, Africa advocacy coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Journalists covering the African Nations Cup should be able to look behind the façade freely and without fear of reprisal.”

Sustained Pattern of Repression
In early January, the state media reported that Obiang had stressed the need for “security and control of immigrants” ahead of the Africa Cup games. The comment echoed the government’s language in the weeks leading up to the AU summit, when migrants in Bata were rounded up by police and mistreated in custody as part of a wider crackdown in various parts of the country.

Such repression has been a hallmark of Obiang’s rule, Human Rights Watch said. Political opponents are subject to arbitrary arrest and harassment. The judiciary lacks independence and basic fair trial standards are disregarded. Despite a law banning torture, the practice remains a serious problem and those responsible enjoy near-total impunity.

Obiang, already Africa’s longest-serving ruler, pushed through constitutional changes in November that strengthened his near-absolute grip on power. The referendum held to approve the changes was discredited by serious irregularities. The government claimed that 97.7 percent of voters approved the measure. Obiang has claimed re-election by similarly large margins.

Skewed Spending Priorities
The Obiang government has undertaken a massive building spree, financed by oil revenues. Much of the construction is for the enjoyment of the country’s tiny elite and foreign guests, Human Rights Watch said. The lavish spending offers little apparent benefit to the majority of the population, who live in poverty.

The government has not revealed how much it spent to host the Africa Cup of Nations, but known improvements include building or expanding stadiums and other sports facilities in Malabo and Bata. It also has beautified these cities ahead of the games, apparently at considerable expense. The government describes the illuminated, granite-encased Freedom Tower, which has a rotating restaurant at the top, as the “crown” of a new seafront promenade in Bata and “one of the most spectacular urban images of Africa.”

Other recent examples of high-cost government projects include:

  • A presidential guesthouse “following the standard of 5-star hotels” to be built in Mongomo, in the interior of the country, at a cost of $77 million, according to the company that obtained the contract.
  • A $830 million conference center and resort complex built by the government in Sipopo, outside of Malabo, to host the African Union summit in June 2011. It was also used to host the Africa-South America Summit in November and is slated to be the site of future meetings. Among other high-end amenities, the Sipopo complex includes 52 luxury villas that face a mile-long artificial beach.

Obiang recently described those who accuse his government of diverting the country’s oil wealth as its “enemies.”

“President Obiang spares no expense to build luxury buildings, monuments, and major infrastructure projects,” Bekele said. “But all that shiny new construction can’t detract from the harsh reality of repression and grinding poverty in Equatorial Guinea under his rule.”

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