Radio director and civil society leaders arrested

New York, January 8, 2009–Detained Gabonese journalist Gaston Asseko, who is in need of medical attention, must be released immediately, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. 

On December 30, Radio Sainte-Marie Technical Director Gaston Asseko and the editor of the private bimonthly Tendance Gabon, Léon Dieudonné Koungou, were arrested by military intelligence in Gabon’s capital, Libreville, and detained by the criminal investigative police, according to local journalists and international news reports.

Koungou was provisionally discharged on January 7 but Asseko remains in custody, defense lawyer Ruphin Nkoulou-Ondo told CPJ. Asseko had surgery for a stomach ulcer a month ago and requires medical treatment, which he is not receiving, relatives said. After a week in police custody, Asseko was physically weak with no access to his lawyer, and he has not been allowed to shower, Nkoulou-Ondo said.

Asseko was charged on January 7 under the penal code act for “possessing a document with intent to disseminate propaganda” and “propaganda that incites rebellion against authorities” Nkoulou-Ondo said. If convicted, the crimes are punishable by prison sentences of up to five years and a fine of 250,000 CFA francs (US$522).

The document was an open letter published on a political blog on December 8 by French journalist Bruno Ben-Moubamba to President Omar Bongo that raised concerns over the financial management of Gabon during Bongo’s 40-plus years of power, according to local journalists. Asseko was transferred on January 7 to Central Prison in Gros-Bouquet, Libreville. A court date has not been set.

“It is outrageous that a journalist can be arrested simply for possessing a public letter,” CPJ’s program coordinator, Tom Rhodes, said. “His detention is part of a pattern of intimidation of the press under Africa’s longest-ruling leader. Gaston Asseko, who needs medical attention, must be released immediately.”

Interior Minister André Mba Obame said the detentions were part of an ongoing investigation by the public prosecutor but refused to provide further information, according to wire reports.

Three civil society leaders are also accused of possessing the letter written by Ben-Moubamba and were arrested on December 31. Marc Ona Essangui, national coordinator of the anti-corruption organization Publish What You Pay, Georges Mpagi, president of the Gabonese Civil Society Network for Good Governance and Gregory Mintsa, a public servant, are all being held at Central Prison. Mintsa is also a plaintiff in a complaint filed in Paris last December calling for an investigation into assets acquired in France by three African heads of state, including Bongo, according to local reports.

The group’s French defense lawyer, Thierry Levy, had his visa for Gabon revoked today by the Gabonese Embassy in Paris for “security reasons” Agence France-Presse reported.

Tendence Gabon was suspended for three months in March for reprinting an article from the Parisian daily Le Monde on Bongo’s private wealth in France. In December, reporter Habib Papy Boubendji of the private satirical weekly Le Nganga was severely beaten by presidential guards after he was called in for questioning to the presidential office.