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Gabon: Civil damages are not a tool for punishment

New York, October 29, 2010--The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Gabonese authorities to free a journalist who was jailed on Tuesday for failing to pay exorbitant damages stemming from a 2004 civil libel suit.

Jean-Yves Ntoutoume, editor of the private bimonthly Le Temps, was imprisoned over his newspaper's failure to pay 10 million CFA francs (US $20,000) in damages to Albert Méyé, a former treasurer of the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG), according to local journalists and news reports.

Méyé sued in response to a column by former Le Temps reporter Mathieu Ebozo'o. The column raised critical questions about whether Méyé could have been involved in an armed robbery six years ago at PDG headquarters, which resulted in the death of a courier and the theft of more than 80 million CFA francs (US $165,000).

The heavy civil damages imposed on Ntoutoume do not appear to be based on any actual losses Méyé sustained as a result of the article in Le Temps, Norbert Ngoua Mezui, president of the Association of Free Print Press Professionals (known by its French acronym, APPEL) told CPJ.

"Civil damages have one purpose: making injured parties whole," said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. "Jean-Yves Ntoutoume was asked to pay a sum far exceeding any losses that may have been caused by the story in question. We call upon Gabonese authorities to release Ntoutoume immediately."

Ntoutoume was summoned by detectives on Tuesday. He was taken to Gros Bouquet prison in the capital city of Libreville, Mezuitold CPJ.

The arrest was based on a May 2009 ruling by an appeals court judge, who confirmed a lower court's ruling awarding damages to Méyé, local journalists reported. Ntoutoume launched Le Temps in 1999.

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