ARTICLE 19: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 4 November 2020:
ARTICLE 19 strongly condemns excessive use of force by security forces and the riots by supporters of political parties in the aftermath of the presidential election in Guinea. At least 21 people were killed, including three children, hundreds of people wounded and an unknown number of protestors or suspected rioters were arrested.
In a reaction to this disturbing situation, Fatou Jagne Senghore, Regional Director of ARTICLE 19 in West Africa stated: “We strongly condemn these unlawful killings. Protest is a right, but the security forces used excessive force to repress the demonstrations in the aftermath of the elections. Even when there are pockets of violence, the security forces should focus on de-escalation, and avoid deadly repression. President Conde must give clear instruction to the security forces to stop the use of firearms and excessive force against protesters and instead facilitate the right to protest.”
“This time, the Government must show to the African and international communities that it does not condone a culture of impunity. They must stop this repression, investigate the incidents and take to justice those suspected to be responsible.”
Excessive use of force against protesters and riots in the aftermath of the presidential election
Guineans voted for a new President on 18 October 2020, after months of nationwide protests against the possibility of the current President Condé to run for a third term. He proceeded with his candidacy after changing the Constitution seven months ahead of the Presidential election. Repression of these protests against his third term resulted in 50 people killed. ARTICLE 19 condemned this and urged the Guinean authorities to prevent further repression and end impunity.
On Monday 19 October supporters of opposition party l’ Union des Forces Démocratiques de Guinée (UFDG) took to the street in Conakry to celebrate their leader’s announcement that he had won the election.
The security forces used tear gas to disperse the largely peaceful gatherings, and three young people were shot dead by the security forces. In N’Zérékoré rioters looted shops and destroyed property. The violence continued till 21 October in different areas such as Hamdallaye, Wanindara, N’Zérékoré and Wanindara. According to local witnesses, security forces continued to use tear gas, and gunfire was heard in Hamdallaye.
The subsequent announcement by the electoral commission that President Condé won the presidential election plunged Guinea into further tension. Clashes broke out between security forces and demonstrators, according to a media report, gunfire was heard, and at least five people died following the violence and others were wounded. Security forces also made arrests. Some members of the electoral commission expressed their doubts about the reliability of the announced results and called for a new election.
The UFDG alleged that the security forces fired live ammunition on peaceful protestors, which resulted in the death of 27 people (18 in Conakry, three in Manéah, three in Labé, one in Mamou, one in Télimélé and one in Pita), and injured 200 people. They also claimed that the security forces arrested hundreds of people and caused several material damages. The Front National pour la Défense de la Constitution (FNDC) which is mobilising against Alpha Conde’s third term, denounced the killing of two of its coordinators in two days in the regions. It is mainly: Boubacar Baldé andDaouda Kanté respectively coordinator of the FNDC at Sonfonia Gare 2 and Pita, shot dead on October 21 and October 22, 2020)
The Government confirmed 21 people were killed. In a press release, the Government had initially said nine people died, with the Minister of Security alleging that protesters had shot with “12 calibre rifles” in the district of Sonfonia, Bailobaya and Cimenterie. No local witness or independent source confirmed that the protesters were indeed armed. Amnesty International revealed that the security forces fired live ammunition at demonstrators in Conakry and Labé.
Amnesty estimates that at least nine people have been killed, but the real number could be much higher, and at least 29 injured.
Fatou Jagne Senghore regretted the pattern of deadly repression in Guinea and killing of children:
“Firing at protesters, restricting free expression and excessive use of force with impunity form a pattern in Guinea. It must end now. It is so shocking that the security forces killed innocent children and protesters instead of protecting them. The authorities must investigate what happened.”
“The situation is already very tense. The Government should not wait for it to get worse but act now and restore the human rights and freedoms of people. ”
Attacks on media and internet shutdown
ARTICLE 19 is also concerned about the restrictions in access to information. On Sunday 18 October 2020, on the evening of the presidential election, the Haute Autorité de la Communication (HAC) suspended the online news website guineematin.com for disseminating information on the electoral results of some polling stations on its Facebook page. Previously, ARTICLE 19 warned that the Government of Guinea had undermined the independence of the media by appointing a President of the media regulatory authority.
In addition, from 23 to 25 October 2020, Internet users reported disruption of the Internet and a restriction of access to social media or Internet shutdown.
“We have the impression the Government tried to counter any circulation of electoral information online. HAC’s decision to suspend an online news website is disproportionate and has no legitimate aim. Although the electoral commission is responsible for announcing official results, the media has the responsibility to inform citizens on the process both online and offline.”
“Access to the Internet is a right. The disruption and shutdown of the Internet is a violation of the right to access information and goes contrary to the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, Governance and the African principles on freedom of expression and access to information. Guinea should guarantee access to information and to refrain from any internet disruption and restrictions”, insisted Fatou Jagne Senghore.
Cutting off or slowing down access to the Internet or parts of the Internet to entire populations or segments of the public can never be justified for any reason, including on the grounds of public order or national security.
In a joint statement on freedom of expression and elections in the digital age, the Special Rapporteurs, supported by ARTICLE 19 called on states to promote effective access to the Internet and ensure that any restrictions on freedom of expression that apply during election periods comply with the international law three-part test requirements of legality, legitimacy of aim and necessity.
Even if, the Government did not recognised its responsibility in the internet disruption, they also did not prevent it or even restore immediately.
In a press release shared on its Twitter, Orange (the main telecom operator and internet supplier) claims to have been a victim of the blackout without any notification from the “La Guinéenne de Large Bande (GUILAB).
On 24 October 2020, the Deputy Director-General of the government agency Autorité de Régulation des Télécommunications et des Postes (ARTP) justified the internet restrictions, claiming it was part of an oversight system for social media, to fight against online hatred and incitement. He further denied it was a total internet shutdown.
On 25 October 2020, the first part of the tweet was deleted, and after, the second part of the tweet has been also removed. But the media already got it and spread its words in various media outlets, and ARTICLE 19 was able to access the screenshot of the tweet
Internet disruption is a pattern that is recurrent in Guinea during electoral times. ARTICLE 19 denounced the blackout of social media during March 2020 legislative and referendum elections.
Blogger and cyber activist Sally Bilaly SOW said: “This shutdown, while expected, is both regrettable and condemnable. It has no legal basis. On the eve of the contested double ballot [referendum and legislative on 22 Marc], access to social media had also been blocked. The explanation by the Deputy Director-General of the ARPT is even more serious because it justifies the establishment of a system of control of social media. But why surveillance of citizens? We want to know more. Because we know that the largest number of Internet users who spread hatred are known to everyone. They are supported and maintained by those in power.”
On 27 October, in a Joint Declaration, ECOWAS, the African Union and the United Nations regretted the acts of violence that resulted in the loss of life and called on the authorities to conduct investigations into the violence and bring the perpetrators to justice.
In a UN statement issued on 24 October, its General Secretariat António Guterres strongly condemned the violence that occurred in the aftermath of the presidential election of 18 October 2020, calling for settlement of the electoral dispute.
UNICEF urged all parties to respect and protect the right to life of all persons, and to take precautionary measures to ensure the safety and protection of children.
The EU condemned the deaths and expressed concerns about the results of the election, calling for the prosecution of those responsible for the violations and inclusive dialogue.
No respect for national and international human rights obligations
The 2010 constitution guarantees the rights to life, to information, and freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. Guinee has also ratified international instruments which guarantee these rights: the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Universal Declaration on Human and Peoples’ Rights (UDHR).
ARTICLE 19 in its principles on protection of human rights in protests underlines that law enforcement officials must never use firearms to disperse a protest. Tear gas may only be used to disperse a crowd when there is more generalised violence, due to its indiscriminate effects and high potential of harm.
Security forces must comply with the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms and the African Commission’s Guidelines for policing assemblies by law enforcement agencies in Africa which specify that security forces can only use force when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty, where all other means of de-escalation and preventing further violence have been exhausted.
In any case, the use of firearms should be regarded as potentially lethal in all circumstances; even firing in the air can result in death.