Editorial critical of Gabonese president lands publisher in prison

New York, July 3, 2007 —An editorial critical of Gabonese President Omar Bongo, Africa’s longest-serving head of state, has led authorities in the capital, Libreville, to arrest a publisher and suspend his newspaper, according to news reports and local journalists.

Guy-Christian Mavioga, director of the private periodical L’Espoir, has been in police custody since Thursday on accusations of offending the head of state in connection with a June 14 editorial headlined “The last days of Bongo,” local journalists told CPJ.

A day after the arrest, the state media regulator (known by its French acronym CNC) suspended L’Espoir on the grounds that Mavioga violated media laws prohibiting a civil servant or someone drawing civil servant benefits from controlling a newspaper, according to news reports. In an interview with CPJ, CNC spokesman Nestor Taylor denied the ruling was linked to the paper’s content and declared the suspension would be lifted if Mavioga appointed a new director.

Several other newspapers have been headed by civil servants or individuals still drawing civil service benefits, including the state daily L’Union, headed by former information minister Albert Yangar…, local journalists told CPJ.

Gabon’s small private and financially vulnerable press is reeling from the government’s crackdown on critical reporting in recent years. Since 2001, the CNC has banned seven publications and handed temporary suspensions to five newspapers and a television station in response to coverage critical of the government, according to CPJ research.

Just last month, the satirical bimonthly Edzombolo resumed publishing after serving a three-month suspension handed by the CNC in connection with a February editorial critical of Bongo.

“The suspension of L’Espoir and the detention of its publisher are part of a disturbing pattern of censorship and intolerance of criticism in Gabon,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “A newspaper has the right to run critical editorials and should not be intimidated into silence by accusations of offending an elected public figure. Guy-Christian Mavioga should be released immediately.”

Mavioga, also head of a small pro-government political party, was the first journalist imprisoned in Gabon since the 21-day detention of Norbert Ngoua Mezuï in October 2006. Mezuï is president of the private press group known by its French acronym APPEL, according to CPJ research.