Despite appeal, a Gabonese journalist is suddenly jailed

New York, October 18, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists calls for the release of a Gabonese journalist who was imprisoned today on defamation charges even as his appeal was still pending. The jailing comes three years after the sentence was first imposed—which a defense lawyer said contravenes Gabonese law—and follows a politically charged debate over the oil-rich island of Mbanié.

The state prosecutor in the capital, Libreville, jailed Norbert Ngoua Mezui, director of the private weekly Nku’u Le Messager, for 21 days and ordered him to pay a fine of 300,000 CFA francs (US$600), his lawyer, Francis Nkéa, told CPJ. Mezui had spent the previous night in the custody of the police. “Not only does the statute of limitations prohibit the enforcement of a verdict entered three years ago, but the execution of a sentence while an appeal is pending is illegal under Gabonese laws,” he said.

Mezui was originally sentenced in 2003 for “defamation via the press” in connection with an article alleging that state treasury funds had disappeared and had caused Gabon to rely on neighboring Equatorial Guinea to pay the salaries of some Gabonese officials, according to news reports and local journalists.

Mezui’s paper recently criticized the pro-government weekly Le Crocodile for accusing government officials of attempting to sell the disputed island of Mbanié to Equatorial Guinea, according to local journalists. On October 13, Le Crocodile responded with an article that noted Mezui’s pending criminal case, according to the same sources. Mezui was taken into custody days later; the prosecution did not offer a public explanation for its decision to revive the case.

“Gabonese authorities should immediately release Norbert Ngoua Mezui,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “His sudden arrest and imprisonment appears to be politically motivated.”

The 12 publications that make up the Gabonese private press association (known by its French acronym as APPEL) plan to halt publication to protest Mezui’s arrest, Jean-Yves Ntoutoumé, the group’s secretary-general, told CPJ. Mezui is president of APPEL. .

The controversy over Mbanié has polarized the Gabonese media, and authorities have cracked down on the private press. On September 29, the National Council on Communications, an official regulatory body, banned the private weekly Les Echos du Nord for three months. The action came after the weekly reported that unnamed members of the press were pressuring President Omar Bongo to fire government officials accused of trying to sell the disputed island.

See CPJ alert: