Gabon media silent on French freezing president’s assets

News that a judge in France froze the private bank accounts of Gabon’s President Omar Bongo was all over the international media but barely a word appeared in the national press.

I have spoken with several independent journalists in Gabon since France-based daily Sud Ouest detailed a ruling freezing 4.2 million Euros (US$5.3 million) of assets belonging to Africa’s longest-serving leader. They told me the unprecedented ruling, the outcome of a court case between a French businessman and Bongo, reached the capital, Libreville, through Radio France Internationale.

However, more than 24 hours later, the local press was mum on this development of national interest, according to local journalists. Internet-based news agency InfoPlusGabon appeared to be the only media outlet to publish an article on its Web site late Thursday. Why?

Speaking to me on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals, a local editor told me this was the norm. “For us, it is a very dangerous topic. We prefer to keep silent for fear of drawing unnecessary problems.” Local journalists indicated that they were more likely to pick up the story once there was a public reaction from the government or civil society, like today’s interview of an activist published by Agence France-Presse.

The president’s wealth remains a sensitive topic. Nearly a year ago, authorities banned private newspaper Tendance Gabon for three months after it republished an investigative report of French daily Le Monde on the Paris assets of Bongo. Two journalists were detained by military intelligence last December and charged for possessing an open letter critical of Bongo’s financial management of the country since 1967. In recent years, authorities have also used imprisonment, seizures, temporary suspensions, or banning of newspapers from circulation to silence critics.

Another journalist who asked that his name be withheld told me the private wealth of the president was an open secret in Gabon. “We know that the president is rich. We would only be surprised by the contrary,” he said, adding that he initially received a lot of phone calls from fellow citizens wishing to confirm the news. Bongo and two other leaders of neighboring oil-rich states are facing an international legal complaint from anti-corruption activists calling for a probe into how they acquired lavish wealth in France.