President Omar Bongo maintained his solid grip on power in this small West African nation. Opposition and pro-democracy movements remained weak, while independent journalists, fearful of losing their jobs, softened their criticism of Bongo, who cultivates a cult of personality and uses widespread official bribery to secure his rule.
In early September, while local and foreign medical authorities struggled to suppress an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus, the official National Communications Council (CNC), a state institution allegedly mandated to promote press freedom and ensure quality journalism, continued the crackdown on private media it began more than three years ago ahead of presidential elections.
After silencing the country’s most outspoken newspapers–the satirical weekly Gris Gris and its sister paper, La Griffe–in 2001 for criticizing the president, the CNC hit more publications in 2002. On September 6, the CNC banned the weeklies Gabaon and Misamu after the papers reported on alleged government embezzlement schemes. Meanwhile, two other private weeklies, Le Nganga and La Lowé, received warnings for criticizing the prime minister.
The ruling Democratic Party controls all state institutions, including the judiciary and law enforcement, so bans and warnings from the CNC foster self-censorship among members of the media. Gabon’s few remaining independent reporters, though privately indignant, are wary of speaking publicly about state interference in the press.
In 2002, state censors also strangled the broadcast media. On February 18, newscaster Edgard-Oumar Nziembi-Doukaga, of the Gabon-based Pan-African radio station Africa No. 1, was fired after he stuttered through the name of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, of neighboring Republic of Congo, on air. Sassou-Nguesso, who is married to one of Bongo’s daughters, enjoys close relations with Gabon’s first family and government officials.
Misamu and Gabaon, two of Gabon’s remaining independent weeklies, were banned for three months by the National Communication Council (NCC) for publishing content “that undermines confidence in the state and the dignity of those responsible for state’s institutions.”
Misamu was banned for reporting that because 3 billion CFA francs (US$4.4 million) had allegedly disappeared from the state’s coffers, civil servants would not receive their September salaries. According to sources, Gabaon was silenced for “violently” criticizing Senate majority leader Georges Rawiri in an August 9 article, according to the NCC.
The NCC threatened two other weeklies, Le Nganga and La Lowé, with a similar ban, apparently for articles the council claimed undermined the prime minister’s dignity.