The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply concerned by the deteriorating state of press freedom in Gabon. Recently, Gabonese authorities suspended two private newspapers and renewed the suspension of a third.
On September 17, police seized the third edition of the satirical bimonthly Sub-Version at the airport in the capital, Libreville, and detained four of the paper's staff for questioning for several hours. Kimote Memey, Abel Mimongo, Stanislas Boubanga, and Chartrin Ondamba had gone to the airport to collect copies of the paper, which is printed in Cameroon to reduce costs.
On September 19, the National Council on Communications (CNC) sent a letter to the newspaper's publications director ordering Sub-Version to cease publication, according to journalists at the paper. The letter also accused Sub-Version of carrying articles "attacking the dignity of the president, his family, and the institutions of the Republic." Journalists at the newspaper told CPJ that the order stemmed from an article that appeared in the paper's second edition on August 20 suggesting that first lady Lucie Bongo was meddling in politics.
The same day, the CNC sent letters to two other publications: the bimonthly newspaper La Sagaie and the private bimonthly Misamu. La Sagaie was banned for inciting tribal division and printing reports "attacking the freedom and dignity of the institutions of the Gabonese republic." Local journalists said the charges stemmed from an article alleging that people from the southeastern Haut-Ogoué region dominate the country's government and army. Misamu--which the council had suspended on May 13 because of an ownership dispute between the paper's editor and a senator--received a letter informing the newspaper that the decision to suspend the paper had been extended until Gabonese authorities rule on the newspaper's ownership. Local journalists told CPJ that the ownership issue is being used as an excuse to keep the paper closed because it has been critical of the government.
On August 22, Your Excellency's Communications Minister, Mehdi Teale, appeared on Gabonese state television and warned both La Sagaie and Sub-Version of "legal action" and "severe punishment," according to local journalists. The same day, the CNC sent a memo to the Interior Ministry urging the ministry to seize both newspapers and monitor their content, according to journalists who have read the letter.
Also on August 22, Noel Ngwa Nguema, a contributor to Sub-Version, was invited by the Minister of Finance to meet with Your Excellency. Nguema told CPJ that during the meeting, which CNC President Pierre-Mari Ndong and Communications Minister Mehdi Teale also attended, you accused Sub-Version of attacking your government by writing about the first lady. According to Nguema, Your Excellency threw a heavy ornament at the journalist and attempted to physically assault him. You also told the CNC president that you never wanted to see the newspaper again, said Nguema.
Local journalists told CPJ that Your Excellency held a meeting with members of the private press on September 26 during which you urged journalists to report more favorably on the government. CPJ reminds Your Excellency that, as a public figure, you and your administration are subject to scrutiny from the press.
As an independent organization of journalists dedicated to defending our colleagues worldwide, CPJ urges Your Excellency to lift the bans on Sub-Version, La Sagaie, and Misamu immediately and unconditionally. CPJ believes that no publication should be censored for publishing critical views on matters of public concern. Furthermore, CPJ reminds Your Excellency of the international consensus that journalists should be allowed to regulate themselves without state intervention.
We thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.
Ann K. Cooper