In Gabon, journalist given suspended prison sentence

New York, June 10, 2010The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns a suspended prison sentence handed to a journalist this week over an article raising questions about the unsolved murder of a government official.

On Monday, a criminal court in the capital, Libreville, convicted Jonas Moulenda, a reporter with the state-owned daily L’Union, on charges of criminal defamation and gave him a suspended three-month prison sentence and a fine of 500,000 CFA francs (US$900), according to news reports and local journalists. Moulenda’s lawyer, Lubin Ntoutoume, told CPJ that both the defense and the public prosecutor have appealed the ruling, adding that the public prosecutor had also requested Moulenda’s acquittal during this trial due to lack of evidence. The case has been dismissed by two judges on separate occasions since last year because of procedural irregularities, he said. Ntoutoume said he believes the two lawyers’ pleas were ignored because of political interference.

The charges relate to a November 2009 article in which Moulenda raised questions about the unsolved murder of René Ziza, who was credited with fighting corruption while in charge of Gabon’s maritime transport agency, the Council of Shippers. Moulenda’s article alleged that an internal audit under Ziza had uncovered the embezzlement of more than 1 billion CFA francs (US$1.7 million), possibly leading some unnamed agency officials to mastermind his murder. Alfred Nguia Banda, Ziza’s predecessor as the head of the council, filed a complaint.

“The entire case against Jonas Moulenda is preposterous,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “Even the prosecution tried to drop it. Yet the court has persisted in pursuing our colleague for raising serious questions about corruption in Gabon. We call on the appeals court to throw out this absurd conviction.”

Moulenda carried out an exclusive investigative report in September 2009 in the oil hub city of Port-Gentil—which had been devastated by deadly violence following Gabon’s disputed presidential polls—and has faced harassment ever since. After L’Union published interviews of residents suggesting more people had been killed than reported by the government, security agents briefly detained the paper’s editor, Albert Yangari, and raided Moulenda’s home. He went into temporary hiding after reporting telephone death threats with chilling references to slain editor Norbert Zongo.