Gabonese government bans tabloid for three months

New York, March 2, 2007 —The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed that authorities in the capital, Libreville, have suspended a satirical newspaper for three months, apparently after it published commentary critical of President Omar Bongo, according to news reports and local journalists.

The official National Communications Council (CNC) suspended the private bimonthly Edzombolo on Tuesday for allegedly publishing “defamatory and insulting news directed at prominent state personalities,” according to local journalists and the news Web site Gabonews. The CNC did not identify the allegedly defamatory coverage; CNC officials did not immediately return messages from CPJ seeking comment.

But the ruling appeared to be related to a February 9 editorial headlined, “Omar does not control anything anymore,” according to CPJ sources. The article alleged that Bongo had lost touch with the concerns of his people, becoming “stubborn and deaf … like a wicked dictator anointed by God.” Bongo has run the oil-rich equatorial African country for 39 years and is now Africa’s longest-serving head of state. The piece also discussed elections for an administrative parliamentary committee, which opposition parties had boycotted for alleged procedural irregularities, local journalists told CPJ. Bongo’s ruling Gabonese Democratic Party holds 81 out of 120 seats in parliament.

“We condemn the suspension of Edzombolo, which appears to be a blatant retaliation for its critical commentary,” 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.”

Edzombolo Director Jean de Dieu Ndoutoume told CPJ that he expects to file a lawsuit challenging the ban, claiming that he was denied a hearing as required by law, and arguing that the suspensions exceeded the CNC’s authority. Ndoutoume’s paper has been harassed previously. In June 2006, Ndoutoume was detained by police for two days, and authorities confiscated about 3,000 copies of his paper in retribution for articles alleging governmental corruption, according to local journalists.

Norbert Mezui, president of the Gabonese private press association (known by its French acronym as APPEL), said that the CNC has routinely ignored its own procedures and regulations. He said APPEL members are meeting this weekend to prepare a statement.

Gabonese authorities have jailed journalists and banned newspapers in recent months over critical stories. The private weekly Les Echos du Nord was suspended for three months in October 2006 in connection with an article critical of government policy; the term was reduced to one month following a hunger strike by Director Désiré Ename. Also in October, the editor of a Libreville weekly was imprisoned for 21 days on a defamation charge. Norbert Ngoua Mezui said he was wrongly jailed for coverage alleging the disappearance of treasury funds.