Gabon targets media over coverage of Bongo’s health

New York, May 27, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the government of Gabon’s crackdown on independent media coverage of President Omar Bongo’s hospitalization and potential succession issues. Bongo, Africa’s longest-serving head of state, has been in a Spanish hospital since earlier this month amid conflicting reports about his condition.

On Saturday, the state-run National Communication Council (known by its French acronym as CNC) summarily suspended from circulation the monthly Ezombolo and the satirical weekly Le Nganga over articles speculating on succession infighting among Bongo’s advisors, according to local journalists and news reports.

On Monday, authorities in the capital, Libreville, stopped journalists Arnaud Zajtman and Marlène Rabaud of international broadcaster France 24 at the airport, according to news reports. The journalists were denied entry to the country for allegedly lacking proper accreditation, Zajtman told CPJ by e-mail.

The incident came on the heels of CNC criticism of French media coverage of Bongo’s hospitalization. On Saturday, the CNC accused France 24 and French satellite broadcasters LCI, I-telé, and Radio France Internationale (RFI) “of broadcasting unofficial and alarmist information regarding the president’s health condition,” according to Agence France-Presse. The CNC also issued a warning to RFI and satellite provider Canal Overseas to abide by agreements with the government of the former French colony that call for “respect of public order, the security of the country, national unity, good morals and the dignity of citizens.”

“President Bongo’s health is a matter of public concern,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “The suspension of Ezombolo and Le Nganga should be lifted immediately and all media outlets should be allowed to freely cover this important story.” 

Ezombolo Managing Editor Jean de Dieu Ndoutoum-Eyi and Le Nganga reporter Harrys Kombila told CPJ today their publications will appeal the suspensions.

Authorities have targeted the newspapers before for their critical coverage. In March 2007, the CNC suspended Ezombolo for allegedly publishing “defamatory and insulting news directed at prominent state personalities;” the agency did not identify the allegedly defamatory coverage. In December 2008, Habib Papy Boubendji, a journalist with Le Nganga, was summoned to the Gabonese presidential office and severely beaten by presidential guards, according to local journalists.

In recent years, Gabonese authorities have used imprisonment, seizures, temporary suspensions, or banning of newspapers from circulation to silence critics over sensitive topics including Bongo’s wealth and health. An international legal complaint filed in France questioning how Bongo and his family amassed their personal wealth has been another sensitive topic.