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
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
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
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
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.