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In Gabon, faux news draws real censorship

Obame after being "sworn in." The government took it seriously. (AFP)

Last week, Gabon's government-controlled National Communications Council ordered the TV station of opposition leader André Mba Obame off the air for a period of three months. The ruling is without appeal and, typically, this is how authorities in this oil-rich equatorial African state silence critical news outlets. Except that, this time, the "reporting" for which the TV station was forced off the air was not about a real event but rather the staging of a faux presidential swearing-in ceremony.

The story goes that Obame, once an interior minister in the government of Omar Bongo Ondimba, who died in June 2009 after 40+ years in power, challenged Bongo's son Ali in August 2009 presidential elections. Both men led a field of candidates by deploying their media assets to back their campaign: Bongo with the state media and Obame with TV+ and Radio Nostalgie. It was the most contested election in Gabon's history, but on Election Day TV+ suddenly went to static, unidentified gunmen fired on its transmitters, and security forces blocked access to its broadcast site. Until late 2009, the station claimed  its broadcast radius had been reduced from nationwide to a small area around the capital. Meanwhile, Gabon's Constitutional Court had declared Bongo the winner of the election, and Obame's court challenges were rejected.

Nonetheless, on January 25, more than 15 months after the voting, Obame renewed the electoral dispute by staging a swearing-in ceremony and declaring himself president of Gabon. He also named a 19-member parallel government. His station, TV+, "covered" the event. In response, the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party called Obame's swearing-in "absurd and backward," according news reports. Authorities dissolved his National Union party, leading to street protests by Obame's supporters. Obame sought refuge in the offices of the U.N. Development Programme's offices in the capital Libreville.

News outlets, including the government-controlled public broadcaster RTG, later aired excerpts of the event, which was also reported in private newspapers, according to local journalists, but the National Communications Council ruled that TV+'s coverage was intended "to undermine public order," according to news reports.

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