President Omar Bongo, in office for 37 years, maintained a solid grip on power in this oil-rich Central African nation, where opposition movements are weak and the press is under bureaucratic assault. In 2004, the National Communications Council (CNC), a government-controlled media regulatory body, continued to censor private media outlets, provoking protests from local journalists.
In March, Prime Minister Jean-François Ntoutoume Emane warned local journalists to “police” themselves and guard against “the bad faith with which some [private media] tarnish either the institutions of the Republic, or those who represent them,” according to the state-owned L’Union (The Union), Gabon’s only daily. In the past, the CNC has suspended publications for what it called “attacking the freedom and dignity of the institutions of the Gabonese republic.”
The prime minister’s statements came after the government and the CNC created a National Commission for Press Cards, which called on local journalists to submit applications for accreditation. While the press cards remained voluntary at year’s end, independent journalists feared they might become another tool for the government to exert control over the press. The commission president, Joseph Loembé, did nothing to dispel this fear when he announced in February that the cards would permit authorities to weed out journalistic “imposters” and “separate the wheat from the chaff.” The commission also recommended that press cards be used to determine which journalists receive access to official information, and that any new media organization be required to have at least two press card holders on staff. Neither recommendation had been instituted by year’s end.
Jean-Yves Ntoutoume, secretary-general of the private press association known by its French acronym, APPEL, protested the commission, as did many Gabonese journalists. A February statement from APPEL said it “firmly denounces this masquerade orchestrated by the CNC,” and Ntoutoume told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that the cards amounted to a government attempt to track journalists.
The CNC, meanwhile, continued to harass and censor Gabon’s small private press. In November, the CNC suspended the private broadcaster Radio Télévision Nazareth (RTN) for more than two weeks. At a November meeting with CNC and government representatives, Emane said the station violated journalistic ethics by broadcasting graphic images of car accidents, according to L’Union. Local journalists said the suspension stemmed from reporting that focused on the poor quality of life of many Gabonese citizens.
In December, the CNC shuttered the private satirical newspaper Gabon Show because of “ongoing legal wrangles that threaten the existence of this paper.” The closure may have been linked to the paper’s reporting on the arrest of Noel Ngwa Nguema, a well-known government critic, according to an AFP report. Nguema, former director of the banned independent bimonthly Misamu (The News), was arrested in November and later charged with arms trafficking.
High printing costs and low salaries make it difficult for journalists and publications to remain independent, according to local journalists. They said that while a handful of financially solvent publications exist, many are bankrolled by members of the government and can become pawns in political power struggles.
In March, police raided and searched the offices of the inoperative bimonthly newspaper L’Autre Journal (The Other Newspaper). Police told Publication Director Anaclet Segalt that they had not found what they sought in the raid, but they did confiscate the paper’s staff directory, AFP reported. The CNC had suspended the private newspaper indefinitely in December 2003 for publishing articles that might “disturb public order.” While L’Autre Journal had published articles critical of the government, local sources said the closure may have been linked to the paper’s owner, Zacharie Myboto, a former Cabinet member who is now a government critic and potential presidential candidate.
While the imprisonment of journalists is rare in Gabon, local journalists still face a repressive press law that allows for prison penalties for offenses such as defamation. In September, Bongo told a meeting of local publishers that he would replace prison sentences with fines for press offenses, although no progress on this pledge had been made by year’s end.