The press freedom climate in Gabon was rife with contradiction last year. Although the government of President Omar Bongo exercised much less control over public opinion than in previous years, local journalists increasingly practiced self-censorship, in line with the virtual lack of political opposition in this oil-rich country.
Since the general elections of 1997, which many believe were rigged by the ruling Democratic Party, Gabonese opposition leaders and journalists alike seem to have lost confidence in the democratic process. Today, Gabon’s print media are dominated by the pro-Bongo daily L’Union, which sporadically offers careful criticism of the government. The satirical weekly La Griffe successfully appealed its August 1998 suspension and resumed publishing in early March. But on March 17 the National Communications Council (CNC) again suspended the newspaper, on the grounds that it had failed to publish the names of its management.
La Griffe‘s sister paper, the bimonthly La Cigale, remains in print. But several other independent and pro-opposition publications, such as La Transparence, La Voix du Peuple and L’Ogooue Express, have disappeared from the newsstands owing to exorbitant production costs and dwindling readership.
On December 22, Germain Lendoye, reporter for another satirical weekly called La Cigale Enchantée, received a two-month jail sentence for nonpayment of an earlier libel fine. Lendoye was fined earlier in December for allegedly slandering Gabon’s public-works minister by discussing his alleged corruption in print.
Broadcast media have not fared much better. In February, the CNC ordered the pro-opposition Radio Soleil to cancel all live political shows after listeners allegedly insulted President Bongo during a call-in session.
Radio Soleil CENSORED
Gabon’s National Communications Council ordered the opposition Radio Soleil station to stop broadcasting live political programs or risk losing its license.
The indefinite ban affected a program called “Feedback” and all similar live programs. The ban was ordered after anonymous callers made insulting remarks about President Omar Bongo during a phone-in on “Feedback.”
La Griffe CENSORED
The president of the National Communications Council (CNC) ordered the suspension of the satirical weekly La Griffe. The CNC sought to justify the suspension on the grounds that La Griffe had failed to publish the names of its senior managers.
In August 1998, a Libreville court found three journalists from La Griffe guilty of libeling the head of the state-owned Air Gabon. La Griffe‘s sister publication, the satirical bimonthly La Cigale (which is run by the same people), has continued publishing.
Germain Lendoye, La Cigale Enchantée IMPRISONED
Lendoye, a reporter for the satirical weekly La Cigale Enchantée, was arrested by police for nonpayment of a fine for libel and condemned to two months behind bars. A Libreville magistrate imposed the fine of CFA20,000 ($308) on December 9 after Zacharie Myboto, Gabon’s public-works minister and mayor of the rural town of Mounana, lodged a complaint against the journalist and his publication. The minister said he had been libeled by Lendoye in a March 9 article in La Cigale Enchantée that accused him of unfair distribution of real-estate permits for the town of Mounana.
Entitled “The Untouchable Duke of Mounana,” Lendoye’s article has caused long-term legal problems for the satirical weekly, which has been unable to publish an issue since early October. The newspaper’s publication director, Dorothee Ngouoni, has left the country for fear of reprisals. She was charged with defamation in connection with Lendoye’s piece and, like Lendoye, sentenced to a two-month prison term and a $308 fine.
La Cigale Enchantée is part of a group of independent publications that have been subjected to hostile scrutiny by Gabonese authorities since August 1998, when the director of state-owned Air Gabon filed a defamation suit against the company that owns the group. Early this year, its sister paper La Griffe, also a satirical weekly, was forced to suspend publication on the spurious grounds that it was not clear who ran it.
While La Griffe has entirely ceased publication, another satirical weekly from the same group, La Cigale (a separate paper from La Cigale Enchantée) can still be purchased at local newsstands.