Newspaper handed 3-month ban for island dispute story

New York, October 2, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns a three-month ban by authorities in Gabon on the newspaper Les Echos du Nord for an article which criticized the handling of a territorial dispute with neighboring Equatorial Guinea.

The National Council on Communications (CNC), an official regulatory body, imposed the ban on September 29, accusing the private weekly of showing “contempt for the image of the nation and its territorial integrity,” according to local and international media.

The ruling relates to a September 25 editorial titled “Mbanié Island: what if we had the wrong target?” The article criticizes unnamed members of the press for allegedly pressuring Gabon’s President Omar Bongo to fire government officials accused of attempting to sell the disputed island of Mbanié to Equatorial Guinea. It also suggested that there was fighting within the government in preparation for the post-Bongo era, and that the strife was indicative of a dying regime.

“The ban on Les Echos du Nord is blatant retaliation for criticism,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We demand that the ban be lifted immediately and that the authorities refrain from attempts to intimidate the media.”

In mid-September, the state-owned daily L’Union and pro-government weekly Le Crocodile accused Gabon’s Minister of the Interior, André Mba Obame, of attempting to sell Mbanié, according to news reports and local journalists.

The island, thought to be rich in oil reserves, is at the heart of a three decades-old territorial dispute between the two countries. A summit on the issue had been scheduled this week but has now been postponed, according to international media reports.

The director of Les Echos du Nord, Désiré Ename, told CPJ that the CNC’s claims were unjustified, and that he would go on hunger strike if the ban was not lifted by Tuesday.