Attacks on the Press 2003: Gabon

In July, the Gabonese legislature amended the constitution to eliminate presidential term limits, opening the way for President Omar Bongo, who has been in office for 36 years, to be president for life. The state-controlled L’Union newspaper, the country’s only daily, said the amendment would usher in “a new era for our democracy and our country.” In fact, the constitutional change shows that opposition and pro-democracy movements remain weak and marginalized in this oil-rich Central African nation.

Throughout 2003, the government’s National Communications Council (CNC), which is supposed to promote press freedom and ensure quality journalism, continued the crackdown on private media that it began more than four years ago ahead of presidential elections.

Continuing its pattern of shuttering any private newspapers that dare criticize authorities, the CNC in May suspended the private weekly Le Temps the day after the paper published an article accusing members of the government of embezzling funds meant for coordinating the national independence festival. In September, the CNC banned two other private newspapers, La Sagaie and Sub-Version, for allegedly “attacking the dignity of the institutions of the Republic,” among other charges. In December, the CNC suspended the private bimonthly L’Autre Journal, accusing it of publishing “defamatory articles.”

Meanwhile, Misamu, a private bimonthly known for its critical stance, remains closed. It had been banned in early 2002 for reporting on official corruption but resumed publishing in the fall of that year. In May 2003, however, the CNC suspended Misamu again, citing an ownership dispute between the paper’s editor and a senator. In September 2003, the CNC extended the suspension, again citing the dispute. But local journalists suspect that the ownership issue is being used as an excuse to keep the paper shut.

Because the ruling Democratic Party controls all state institutions, including the judiciary and the CNC, self-censorship in the media is rife. Journalists also complain that, while a handful of private newspapers exist, many are bankrolled by members of the government and can become pawns in political power struggles. High printing costs and low salaries make it difficult for both publications and journalists to remain independent.

Financial constraints mean that most privately owned publications cannot appear regularly, and several newspapers are printed in neighboring Cameroon to reduce costs. In May, Communications Minister Mehdi Teale announced that the government would allocate 500 million CFA francs (US$937,490) to support media development. However, journalists say that in the past, the government used such funds to buy favorable coverage.

Several private radio stations broadcast in Gabon in addition to the state-run Radio Télévision Gabonaise, but local journalists say that most private stations do not focus on news. Only foreign stations provide regular independent news, including Radio France Internationale, Voice of America (VOA), and the BBC, which began broadcasting on the FM band in Gabon in 2003. Also this year, after several attempts, the BBC managed to secure a license from the CNC to operate its own antenna in the capital, Libreville. VOA programs are broadcast on FM in Libreville via cooperation with a local private radio station.