Journalist, TV host, producer and director of institutional documentaries and fiction, Alhussein Sano is a Guinean intellectual. He entered the media world with the creation of his production agency MAXI PLUS in 1995, and can look back on 28 years of journalistic experience. Now a member of the Maison des Journalistes, Alhussein discusses the weakening of press freedom in Guinea through his trials and tribulations.

In 2007, his CLAP arts and culture program became part of the national television network (RTG1) and is his proudest achievement. Satisfied with the ratings, the channel asked him to perfect the program schedule from 2009 onwards. Despite the promising career ahead of him, Alhussein nevertheless notes that replacements at RTG are based on ethnicity: “RTG’s administration was very Malinkinized from 2010 onwards (editor’s note: the Malinké ethnic group has become the majority among administrators), and it was impressive: the new editorial line was now based on praise for the new president at the time, Alpha Condé”, with no regard for journalistic neutrality. 

Despite the chaotic political situation, Alhussein was appointed program director in 2013, “at the suggestion of the director at the time.” He then pursued his projects for RTG and for MAXI PLUS, “one of the best-equipped production companies in the country.

Ethnicity, central to the life of a Guinean journalist

But in February 2019, just as President Alpha Condé had reached the end of his second term, the country went up in flames. President since 2010, Alpha Condé was attempting to amend the constitution to maintain his grip on power, triggering violently repressed demonstrations and the anger of the opposition. Alpha Condé’s rival political party, the FNDC, held elections despite dozens of deaths, reaffirming its position for a third term in 2020. A coup d’état by the military junta on September 5, 2021 finally led to his removal from office. 

A dark period for Alhussein, starting in 2019: invited by RTG’s managing director to a meeting of his political party, the RPG, Alhussein understands that he is expected to fall in line. “He decided that this was a good opportunity for me, because I belong to the Malinké ethnic group like him“, one of the country’s main ethnic groups, from which Alpha Condé is descended. “I was shocked by what he said,” explains our JRI in a relentless tone. “I told him that my profession as a journalist demanded impartiality in my work.” This resistance cost him his home and he paid for it with exile. He affirms that “I never accepted his proposal, because this community divide played no part in my decision, especially as I didn’t support their plan for a third mandate. Over time, the divorce between us became definitive.”

Little by little, Alhussein saw his responsibilities and his work trampled underfoot: the simple refusal to take part in a political meeting was enough to destroy his career in Guinea. “I was excluded from all the channel’s activities. Our relationship really soured because of my cousin Abdourahamane Sano, National Coordinator of the FNDC (Front National pour la Défense de la Constitution), a civilian group opposed to the military junta.”

The high price of press resistance

A social opposition movement, the FNDC is behind a series of demonstrations against the modification of the Constitution in February 2019 against Alpha Condé. The CNRD offered his cousin Abdourahamane Sano a seat in the transitional government, which he refused. He had aroused the ire of the regime, which therefore focused on Alhussein.

“I was then replaced by an RPG party activist in my post, to break my career plan.” As if that wasn’t enough, Alhussein was demoted to head of the Production and Directing Section at RTG 2, a non-broadcasting channel. 

Still with a fierce desire to do his job and a production company of his own, the Guinean journalist concentrated on his projects, in particular making a documentary on the activities of the FNDC, for which his cousin worked. Unfortunately for him, the difficulties didn’t stop there.

He explains to our microphone that “following the coup d’état of September 5, 2021, perpetrated by the military group CNRD (Comité National du Rassemblement pour le Développement), Guineans thought they had lost an executioner (Alpha Condé) and thought they had found themselves a hero, the head of the military junta Colonel Mamady Doumbouya.” Yet, as Alhussein so aptly recalls, Mamady Doumbouya “had witnessed and participated in the exactions of Alpha’s regime.” 

Skeptical, Alhussein observes the vise tightening around Guinean journalists, including himself. “Military regimes often show little respect for human rights, and use every means to silence political leaders who do not share their ideals,” he laments.

In January 2022, Alhussein was invited to a meeting with the new Secretary General of the Ministry of Communication, in order to reshape RTG1 and 2’s programs. Explaining that he wanted to maintain his professional integrity, Alhussein came up against a demagogic wall, costing him his position as Program Director. “The Secretary General called me out rudely: “Are you still refusing to help us? I was really surprised by this reaction, then he added in the same tone: “When you change your mind, the doors of the department will be wide open to you”. There was something fishy about all this verbal abuse. In April, I had another meeting in the General Manager’s office. Two men were in front of me: one said he liked my show, and the other confided in me that he wanted FNDC members to see my documentary“. 

A trap he doesn’t fall into. “I replied that, according to the contract, once the film had been made, the producer had to get the film back, along with all the media and rushes used. They insisted, to no avail. I suspected they were there to trick me.” 

As the discussion progressed, the men in the general manager’s office learned that Alhussein’s passport had expired. They offered to make a photocopy to end his administrative deadlock. Not fooled, Alhussein gave them only one passport, the other still holding a visa. “I understood that they were intelligence agents who wanted to confiscate my valid passport. It’s a very common practice in Guinea,” he says with some pride.

The press, collateral damage of a political crisis

Following the fall of Alpha Condé to the CNRD, the FNDC called for new waves of protests against the military junta. The junta had promised to hand over power to civilians, but settled in without announcing an expiry date.

CNRD and FNDC clashed on all fronts. “The military deemed it necessary to annihilate all FNDC actors who had played a major role in the downfall of Alpha Condé, as well as all supposed collaborators“, including himself. On July 5, 2022, as the FNDC organized a press conference, its members were brutally arrested by the police and beaten in front of the cameras. They were released after a week, at the request of the population.

After a visit from government agents, Alhussein was forced to vacate his house without notice, and was summarily evicted. He took refuge with his family in Hamdallaye, but they were under surveillance and received impromptu visits from the army, forcing him to go into hiding with friends. 

On July 29, 2022, following a large-scale citizen mobilization, Alhussein decided to check on his family. “In less than 30 minutes, two pick-ups with hooded soldiers burst into the courtyard of the family home. They knew I was there and started searching the house, confiscating phones, stealing our money and brutalizing my sisters. I barely escaped by climbing over the backyard wall.” If he manages to escape, Alhussein must leave behind his precious computers, now in the hands of the military, as well as his editing equipment.

“In Guinea, when you’re arrested, you can be killed without follow-up, or you risk dying in prison or spending years there without being tried.”

For him, the entire Guinean press is on borrowed time. “Of course, it was the same with Alpha Condé; there’s a real continuity in his policies. You can’t say everything about the Guinean junta, and you can feel it.” Independent or state-owned, the media have been and still are muzzled by those in power. 

The latest examples include a journalist summoned in July after an article on a truckload of medicines blocked by the military, and another arrested for covering the social work of mine workers in Boké this year. An asphyxiating situation for Guineans, from which it seems impossible to escape.

“All the media are controlled by the Haute Autorité de la Communication, which has kept the same president after Condé. Scripts are drawn up by the government and distributed to the public media. If a radio station wants to be commercial, it will inevitably become political. They are the very expression and communication of power. If we don’t play the game, journalists can be banned from the airwaves,” says Alhussein.

Hardly optimistic, he would like to continue his work in France, “where freedom of expression is protected. The state protects its freedom better, so now I can talk about Guinea without being worried. Even if the head of the junta leaves, all his men have been placed in the ministries, it would be an illusion.” An impasse into which Alhussein no longer plans to slip. Other Guineans, however, continue to defy the authorities and the army by simply doing their job. Information soldiers whose courage should not be forgotten.

By Maud Baheng Daizey. Translation by Andrea Petitjean.

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