A French judge on
Tuesday authorized an
anti-corruption group to pursue a complaint that questions how the leaders of three
oil-rich, central African nations amassed their personal assets. One byline was
absent in news media coverage: Bruno Ossébi, an online Congolese columnist and one
of the few local journalists who had covered the sensitive issue. Ossébi died
in February in a mysterious fire that destroyed his home and killed three
Senior French Magistrate
Françoise Desset gave legal standing to Transparency International France's
complaint alleging that French real estate, cars and bank accounts held by the
ruling families of Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Republic of Congo
had been acquired by appropriating public funds. The ruling allows the case to move
toward trial; no allegations have been proved. Republic of Congo
government spokesman Alain Akouala dismissed the ruling, telling Agence
France-Presse that "in substance, there has never been anything concrete
and there will never be anything concrete legally-speaking in this case."
interviews recently, the same Akouala reacted
to CPJ's report raising questions about Ossébi's death, and declared in a Radio
France Internationale program that Ossébi's death was "an accident." That comment
seems at odds with an ongoing investigation that is supposed to determine the
origin of the fire. "We want to know whether it was of criminal or accidental
origin," Public Prosecutor Alphonse Dinard Mokondzi told CPJ in our report
published last month. It's unclear how long the probe, led by a special magistrate,
will take or whether its findings will be released publicly.
Ossébi edited a blog closely tracking the
French lawsuit and investigating the assets of Congolese politicians. The French
case has received little other coverage in the three countries; some journalists
tell CPJ they have self-censored to avoid potential reprisals.
In Tuesday's ruling,
the French magistrate did not give standing to the other plaintiff in the case,
Gregory Mintsa, a taxpayer from Gabon,
according to Jacques Terray, vice president of Transparency International
France. The ruling would have affected Ossébi who was keen on joining Mintsa as
a plaintiff in the case. Mintsa, who had been the target of harassment and imprisonment
since joining the complaint, could appeal, Terray said.
barring a possible appeal by the French state prosecutor, the ruling could
allow other anti-corruption organizations to join the complaint, said Maud
Perdriel-Vaissière, a legal adviser to the plaintiffs with the French
international justice network Sherpa. Those organizations include Free
Actors of the Gabonese Civil Society (known by its French acronym as ACT-LIB), a Europe-based group led by
French journalist and activist Bruno Ben Moubamba.
One is tempted to
imagine how Ossébi would have reacted to this development had he been alive. "I
know he had asked to join the complaint," Moubamba told CPJ. "He would have
been happy. This is a bit of justice for him."
Mohamed Keita is advocacy coordinator for CPJ's Africa Program. Keita has written about independent journalism and development in sub-Saharan Africa for publications including The New York Times and Africa Review, and has appeared on NPR, the BBC, Al-Jazeera, and Radio France Internationale. Keita has also given presentations on press freedom at the World Bank, U.S. State Department, and universities. Follow him on Twitter: @africamedia_CPJ.