With confounding ease, President Omar Bongo maintained his smooth-talking, iron-fisted rule by suppressing critical media voices via the Penal Code and by simply purchasing good press. In January, the president appropriated 500 million francs (US$690,000) to support private media outlets, causing reporters to engage in embarrassing public squabbles over how to divvy up the bounty.
Throughout the year, the National Communications Council (CNC), a state institution mandated to promote press freedom and ensure quality journalism, presided over a devastated media landscape. Since 1998, the CNC has been using licensing regulations to trim the number of private radio stations. There are still a few apolitical private and community radio stations in Gabon, and opposition newspapers appear regularly. But local journalists say self-censorship is more pervasive than ever.
The state broadcasting network, which includes two radio and two television stations, remains the preserve of the ruling Democratic Party. And harsh defamation laws continue to impair investigative journalism. (A more liberal press law was drafted in 1999 but has yet to clear parliament.)
Gabonese press freedom took another hit in February, when the satirical weekly La Griffe and its supplement Gris Gris, both consistent thorns in President Bongo’s side, were banned by the CNC for the third time in two years. La Griffe‘s publisher, Michel Ongoundou, and the paper’s editor, Raphaël Ntoutoume, were both ordered to quit journalism. The CNC justified its decision by claiming that articles published in the two papers “bordered on provocation against the President.”
In the weeks before the banning, La Griffe was taken to court twice, first by President Bongo and his wife, and later by the president’s sister-in-law, Gisèle Opra. All three claimed to have been defamed in several articles. Their cases were still in court at year’s end.
After relocating to Paris in May, Ougoundou launched Gris Gris International, another satirical paper. In October, authorities banned its distribution in Gabon. Government officials gave no reason for this move, but the government daily L’Union editorialized that press freedom must have “some limits.”
Not to be outdone, Prime Minister Jean François Ntoutoume Emane castigated the “appalling, disrespectful attitude” of news outlets such as Gris Gris International that had the audacity, he said, to speculate on prospects for political change in the oil-rich nation. The prime minister’s reaction reflected a common mindset in Gabon, where public expressions of unconditional support for President Bongo are often rewarded with cash-filled envelopes.
In search of global support as the very existence of the press appeared increasingly at risk, Gabon’s Association of Free and Independent Publishers joined the World Association of Newspapers in November.
During the December parliamentary elections, a record 82 percent of Libreville residents declined to vote and 56 percent of the eligible voters in other parts of the country also elected to stay home. The ruling Democratic Party won with 80 percent of seats in the National Assembly. The president’s son, Ali Bongo, raked in 100 percent of the vote in Bongoville, his father’s native village.
Opposition leader Pierre Louis Agondjo Okawe of the Progress Party was moved to complain that Gabon had returned to the one-party system, while other opposition candidates attacked the state media for not covering their campaign tours.
Michel Ongoundou, La Griffe
Raphaël Ntoutoume, Le Gri-Gri
The Libreville satirical weekly La Griffe and its monthly supplement, Le Gri-Gri, were banned, and their respective editors, Ongoundou and Ntoutoume, were ordered to cease practicing journalism temporarily after the state-run National Council on Communication ruled that a series of articles in La Griffe bordered on provocation against the head of state.
La Griffe was previously banned in August 1998, following the conviction of one its reporters in a defamation case. It was reinstated in February 1999, only to be banned again on March 17, 1999, on the unsubstantiated charge that its editor did not reside in Gabon. It resumed publication in October 2000.
In January, the paper was again dragged to court, first by President Omar Bongo and his wife, and later by the president’s sister-in-law, Gisèle Opra. All claimed to have been defamed in several articles.
La Griffe had accused Opra of illegal real estate deals. The presidential couple reportedly took offense at a piece that mocked Bongo’s book, Blanc Comme Nègre (White As Black), which La Griffe attacked for praising France’s controversial colonial legacy in Africa.
In early May, CPJ learned that the paper’s staff had relocated to Paris, where they are planning to relaunch the weekly with a pan-African focus.
Le Gris-Gris International
Gabon’s government ordered Sogapresse, a state-owned newspaper distributor, to block all shipments of the Paris-based Le Gris-Gris International, a satirical monthly published by exiled Gabonese journalists.
A week before the order, Sogapresse had ordered more copies than usual from France, apparently to satisfy a growing demand.
But on October 18, Police Commissioner Jean-Claude Labouba summoned Sogapresse’s executives to his office in the capital, Libreville, and asked them to stop distributing Le Gris-Gris International.
Acting without a warrant, squads of Criminal Investigation Department officers seized all copies of the newspaper at newsstands and other locations throughout Libreville. The officers later told reporters they were acting on orders from the Ministry of the Interior.
Le Gris-Gris International is the latest avatar of the Libreville-based satirical weekly Le Gris-Gris, which was banned earlier in the year, along with La Griffe, another weekly that tends to be highly critical of President Omar Bongo.
After the publishers for the two banned publications were barred from practicing journalism in Gabon, they relocated to Paris, where they began publishing Le Gris-Gris International.