Reporter alleges beating by presidential guards

New York, December 10, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists is outraged by reports that a journalist who was summoned to the Gabonese presidential office ended up in intensive care from a severe beating on December 5. The office called in journalist Habib Papy Boubendji for questioning over a November 27 column that raised pointed questions about the role of President Omar Bongo’s daughter, a presidential aide, in an alleged corruption scandal, the journalist told CPJ today.

Boubendji, a reporter for the satirical weekly Le Nganga, said members of the presidential guard assaulted him with clubs. He said he had been officially discharged from intensive care, but lingering pain, broken ribs, and bruises were keeping him hospitalized in Gabon’s capital, Libreville.

In a telephone interview with CPJ today, Raphael Ntoutoume Nkoghe, special presidential adviser in charge of media relations, said he was not aware of the beating, but acknowledged seeing Boubendji in the office of a presidential guard he would not identify shortly before the incident. His office would investigate the matter, he said.

“We call on the Gabonese authorities to explain how Habib Papy Boubendji was so brutally beaten at the presidential office,” said CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, Tom Rhodes. “We also call on prosecutors to immediately investigate this case and bring to justice all the perpetrators of this crime.”

Plainclothes police picked up Boubendji at the presidential office and took him to his house, which they searched, seizing documents, cameras, a voice recorder, and a memory stick, before interrogating him for nearly three hours and finally taking him to a hospital, according to local journalists. Officers allegedly demanded a copy of the November 27 edition of Le Nganga, which has not published since Boubendji’s beating–staffers shut down operations and dispersed into hiding fearing threats or arrests, according to one staffer who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisal.

In its last edition, Le Nganga ran a front-page story that raised questions about the role of Pascaline Bongo, presidential chief of staff, in the alleged embezzlement of 600 million CFA francs (US$1.2 million) in public funds, according to CPJ research. Bongo did not publicly react to the story, but the state-run National Communications Council summoned Managing Editor Loïc Bitéghé for questioning on December 1, according to local journalists.

Boubendji was the third journalist in Libreville attacked while working this year, according to CPJ research. In April, police officers assaulted cameraman Claude Ada Mboula of private broadcaster Télé Africa during an anti-government march, landing him in the hospital for six days, according to local news reports. Last month, police assaulted reporter Sydney Ivembi of Internet-based daily GabonPage while he was taking photographs of a sidewalk cleanup operation, according to Agence France-Presse.

Gabon’s independent media has been weakened by a combination of government censorship–including a recurring pattern of suspensions of media outlets over critical coverage of Bongo, who has been in power since 1968–and financial pressure, CPJ research has found.