It’s been a couple of weeks since I left Gabon, and a month since elections to pick a
successor to Omar Bongo, who ruled Africa’s
fourth-largest oil producer for 41 years. There are unresolved questions about
the ballot count and the number of people killed in post-election violence.
Until this summer, I did not know much about Gabon, except for a random tidbit—that the nation
of 1.4 million had a GDP matching Portugal. Things changed after July
3 when Lova Rakotomalala and I, both bloggers from Madagascar, received an e-mail
from Alice Backer, a
former French editor of Global Voices Lingua, about covering Gabon’s presidential elections scheduled for August 30.
I accepted because I need fresh air. After all, as a citizen
blogger of Global
Voices teny Malagasy, I had already experienced covering the bitter
political crisis tearing apart my Indian Ocean island of Madagascar.
With crisis reporting platform Foko-ushahidi,
which allowed ordinary citizens to send testimonies via SMS, real-time
reporting on Twitter, and local Web
sites such as Topmada, Lova, myself and other citizen journalists
helped cover all sides of the unfolding crisis. Citizen media reports were even
media as the Malagasy media was divided
into partisan political positions.
on the other hand, is not known as a “wired” country in tech speak. Less than 6
percent of the population has access to the Internet, according to InternetWorldStats.
While intense public outcry
opposed our former president’s closure of rival’s TV station and eventually led
to his toppling from power, government censorship of media appeared to be the accepted
norm in Gabon
for many years, according to press freedom organizations.
Nevertheless, as I left the winter-season cool temperatures
of Madagascar for the hot
and humid air of Gabon’s
seaside capital of Libreville,
just above the Equator, I knew the elections would be historic, if not for the
unprecedented role of new media technologies.
Twenty-three candidates were contesting the elections, many
with appealing campaign Web sites such as Ali9,
AndreMbaObame or Moubamba. Candidates
were also aggressively campaigning on social
networking sites. One of the candidates for instance, Franco-Gabonese
journalist Bruno Ben Moumbamba, was among the most active on Facebook,
YouTube and Twitter.
Ali Ben Bongo, the ruling party candidate, even distinguished his campaign by
sending on two separate occasions a personal
SMS message to the customers of Gabon’s three main mobile carriers, Zain, Libertis, and Moov.
In the many bars (commonly called “makis”) of downtown Libreville’s Louis
district, people discussed everything around the local beer “Regab” and
braised fish dishes. With Bongo’s monopoly of state media, most local radio
stations oriented toward religious and entertainment programming, and a handful
of partisan TV stations controlled by the elite in politics, business, and the
clergy, most Gabonese turned to international media for objective news.
Unfortunately, the print and broadcast media’s coverage of the elections was
limited by censorship,
intimidation, and violence
When I arrived in Libreville,
I quickly detected that people were reluctant to freely express their views in
public to someone they do not know. Even the barber I went to for a haircut
politely declined to share his views on the elections, when I put the question
to him as the TV in his salon was blaring Africa 24’s coverage of the polls.
At first, many young people I met did not seem very
interested in the Internet. In fact, the most educated told me they used the
Web exclusively to check e-mail and visit chat or dating sites. Others appeared
motivated by the idea of blogging, but wanted to be paid to do it. Nevertheless,
with help, a few people took their first steps in using the Web as social
media, and a handful of new citizen voices slowly emerged. Journalist and
activist Gaston Asséko
shared his experience
on voting day on YouTube. Roger Edima
Mavoungou Wilson, a communications professional, started a blog and is actively tweeting. Régis Ngoma, a local comedian, even started a YouTube channel with videos
satirizing the elections.
Regardless, there were many difficulties in my reporting. I
remember being unable to text after the mobile companies suspended
SMS service during the elections. As a result, a crisis reporting platform
deployed by a Gabonese diaspora movement based in France called The
Guardian Angels of Gabon on Ushahidi
never took off. Nevertheless, social media facilitated the flow of information
between the Gabonese diaspora and those living home. “#Gabon” even jumped to
tag on francophone Twitter
following the announcement of elections results, according to Twirus.
Doubts persist over the results of the presidential
elections and with a recount
of the votes in progress, journalists are still under pressure. Just last weekend,
local caricaturist and blogger Patrick
Essono was detained
for drawing a cartoon of two policemen. A day before, the editor of state daily
Albert Yangari, was detained
for questioning after publishing interviews with residents of Port-Gentil that
suggested more people had been killed in post-election
violence than reported
by the government. This week, there were reports that the house of Jonas Moulenda, the journalist who carried out the
interviews, was searched
by security agents, and that he has received death
Andriankoto Harinajaka Ratozamanana, is co-founder of the Foko Blog Club, which trains Malagasy citizens in citizen
journalism. He blogs on Posterous.