A large number of journalists from Gabon are believed to have fled their homeland in the past two years, while some are said to be preparing to leave as the state’s crackdown on critical reporting seems to have reached a point of no return.
Police have also reportedly destroyed media equipment and journalists’ cellphones, and have scanned seized devices for potential “sensitive information.”
The country’s media freedom record has been worsening over the past five years, to the extent of reaching its lowest level since 2012, and over the past year, Gabon dropped five places in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, reflecting this deterioration.
The current crackdown on media in Gabon has been condemned by international media freedom experts and organisations, who continue to call for those responsible for be held to account.
African media freedom advocate and International Press Institute (IPI) fellow Raymond Louw told Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF): “The imprisonment, torture and ill-treatment of journalists that are taking place in Gabon violate international declarations and the law on media freedom and the charters of the African Union and its supporting commissions, which lay down that the media should be allowed to operate freely and independently of government, political and commercial interests.
“The reports of the arrest of journalists and their torture by the authorities in Gabon are horrifying and call for the arrest and punishment of the perpetrators,” he added.
RSF noted: "Such indiscriminate and brutal actions by the authorities constitute an act of intolerable violence against freedom of information in Gabon.”
Similarly, in its 2017 report titled “Populists and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to Global Democracy,” Freedom House gave Gabon a ‘not free’ rating for its overall freedom status as well as its press freedom status.
Difficult relationship with media
Tension has been rising in the oil-rich Central African nation of 1.7 million people, since President Ali Bongo Ondimba was controversially re-elected in the 2016 elections which the European Union said were plagued by anomalies.
However, the bad blood between Ondimba and the independent media can be traced back to 2009, when he replaced his father, the late dictator Omar Bongo who ruled Gabon for 41 years.
“Nobody in this country wanted Ali to take over from this father, nobody. And the media cannot stand aside and look when one family continues ruling a country for more than 50 years with the same methods: brutality, dictatorship, state corruption and stealing public money, while half of our population have no food, no jobs, no houses and our kids are attending overcrowded classrooms,” a local journalist told DCMF on condition of anonymity.
The journalist, who was previously detained and claims to have received death threats, added: “When we try to remind the regime that Gabon is not a monarchy and that it is time for change, they say: ‘These guys are political activists, not journalists because they support the opposition and therefore they are no longer neutral’.”
Another local journalist, who only gave his name as Jean-Claude, told DCMF: “Barely a month after Ali came to power, he suspended six newspapers allegedly for 'violations of the principles of professional conduct and ethics'.
“Then we told ourselves we are going to experience seven long years of misery, persecution and crackdown. And this is it,” he said, adding “journalists are being tortured, arrested without a warrant and newspapers offices raided.
“Who wouldn’t long for change of leadership when you live like a caged animal in your own birthplace? Are journalists wrong to support the opposition?”
Critical journalists: political activists, pawns of opposition parties?
Some government insiders reiterate that many critical journalists in Gabon are not trained journalists, but political activists and therefore pawns of the opposition parties, which support them financially, ideologically and morally to put “unnecessary pressure” on the president and the ruling party.
Back in 2011, a former president of state-controlled media regulation agency, National Communication Council (CNC), levelled the accusations of journalists-turned-political activists against the critical media.
“I will not be the whipping father of the press. I will try to work with journalists, because it is found that it is rather activists who write in the newspapers, which raises a problem of ethics in the profession," Jean Ovono Essono told the media shortly after his appointment.
However, these allegations have incensed Louw, who said: “The government has failed to provide any evidence to support these serious allegations.
“Thus my assessment is that they fall into the category of the wild, deliberately misleading and inaccurate accusations levelled against journalists who uncover the abuse of power, self-serving policies, corruption and misconduct of the government and its officials that dictatorial governments in Africa are notorious for,” he argued.
Several attempts to get comment from Désiré Ename, an exiled journalist seen by many as the ‘Nelson Mandela’ of Gabon media freedom, were unsuccessful. Ename, who has lived in France since 2014 after his detention alongside his colleague Jonas Moulenda, still owns and manages Echos du Nord, a fiery anti-government newspaper.
Moulenda, who also fled to France and is still the editor of Gabon-based Faits Divers, ano
ther critical newspaper, also declined to comment. A source in the capital Libreville said their refusal to comment could be linked to the current tense media situation in the country, where the two above-named publications are said to be in a serious threat of disappearing from the shelves.
Nevertheless, a report published in 2014 suggested that the quality of journalism in Gabon remains a problem : “The quality of information remains a major issue in Gabon…Most of the content of what is served to the audiences is uncalled for, controversial, provocative, scandalous or hateful.”
Some published or disseminated elements are more a matter of militancy than journalis
m, according to the report, commissioned by the ministry of digital economy, communication and post.
Lack of professionalism?
Several studies appear to demonstrate that Gabon media is suffering from a serious ack of professionalism. A UNESCO-UNPD study conducted in 2011 had uncovered a very low rate of trained journalists in the country’s media space.
The report, which at the time deplored the frequent harassment and arrest of journalists that it said was leading to self-censorship, also pleaded for capacity building of media professionals.
Another study said that the role of the journalist in Gabon and practices in the media should be revisited, and the mechanisms of training and capacity building need to be strengthened.
Reassessing the current media environment in Gabon, one could draw the conclusion that none of the recommendations made by the two above-mentioned reports have been followed by the government.
Instead, the government continues to call on journalists to show professionalism and
ethical conduct and avoid hateful content, without addressing the roots causes of these problems.
New media law
And when everything fails, the regime of Bongo Ondimba seems to brandish its latest form of ammunition: a new media law drafted by the state’s ‘experts’ and enacted without any form of consultation with stakeholders or members of the public which came into force on January 2, 2017.
Gabon Review, a popular online publication, says the New Communication Code carries with it the seeds of mass destruction against journalists, editors, publishers, printers, producers, website hosts and press distributors.
The law prohibits, among others, anyone living outside Gabon to own, edit, or manage a media outlet based in Gabon. It also prohibits journalists living outside Gabon to contribute articles to Gabonese publications, and warns any journalist against using ‘unregistered’ pseudonyms.
According to article 75 of the new law, privately-owned media outlets are now under the control of the minister of communication, despite already being subject to private enterprise law.
Numerous articles list fines ranging from 500 000 francs (750 euros) to 10 million francs (15 000 euros) for various offences, including the “illegal” creation of a communications company and publishing, posting or printing prohibited material, among others.
RSF has strongly condemned the ratification of the legislation, saying it puts the media in a straightjacket.
“Gabon’s new communication code restricts the freedoms of media and journalists without providing a clear legal framework protecting the media profession,” said head of RSF’s Africa desk, Cléa Kahn-Sriber.
“The vague wording, the imprecise definitions of offences and the constraints imposed on the media just reinforce the threat to free speech and encourage self-censorship,” she added.
Journalist Jean Claude said the new media law was the primary reason he is now preparing to leave Gabon.
“It’s over for the private media. Many of them will go out of business and won’t have much to publish because some of the hard-hitting content comes from abroad, supplied by journalists living outside Gabon,” he said.
“I read the whole content of the law and I must say that there is no future anymore for private and critical media in Gabon,” Jean-Claude added, brushing aside communication minister and government spokesman Alain-Claude Bilie Bi Nzé’s claim that the new law would enable journalists to work with more freedom and responsibility.
Controlling public order
Media expert Leonard Wanyama told DCMF that media legislation constitutes a government’s pre-emptive act to establish what it views as necessary controls in attaining public order.
“Aside from the threat of terrorism, acts of public disorder in the form of strikes, protests or of hooliganism - among other forms of violence - significantly delegitimise African states,” he said.
“This is especially the case in situations where grievances arise out of a lack of public confidence in governments and their respective administrations.
The media is therefore seen as one of the most insidious elements that reinforces these various forms of disgruntlement through reporting or exposition of issues which therefore makes it difficult to maintain public order due to what the state perceives as incitement of its citizenry to revolt,” Wanyama added.
Foreign reporters not welcome
If the law was not enough to squeeze independent reporting, the government of Gabon is seen to be suppressing media criticism on all levels.
In October, Mireille-Sarah Nzenze, secretary-general of the ministry of communication for foreign affairs in the Francophonie and Gabonese diaspora, announced that foreign journalists wishing to enter Gabon will have, first, to get a written and signed authorisation from the minister of communication before proceeding to any Gabonese embassy to apply for a visa.
The reason behind the visa policy change has not been revealed, but critics suspect that the government aims to ‘punish’ several foreign media outlets, especially from former colonial power France, for their harsh criticism toward and “interference” in Gabon’s internal affairs
In September, Olivier Piot, a French journalist working for Le Monde Diplomatique was denied entry at the Libreville airport, and deported immediately to Paris, despite saying: “I had secured an authorisation of the ministry of communication prior to my trip to Gabon.”
Louw has condemned Gabon’s tightening of foreign reporters’ visa conditions. “This practice is intended to censor and silence journalists who are critical of the government’s conduct and its abuse of power and ill-treatment of citizens.”
Cameroon media expert Jessica Foumena told DCMF: “Africa is a difficult place to be. For some governments, the reports made by independent journalists are unwelcome because they don't fit into their narrative.
“In other words, journalists operating in Africa are more likely to meet challenges in the field compared to the colleagues around the world. That being said, we can only hope that the profession of journalism will be perceived positively across the African continent in the nearest future. We need journalists to thrive safely if we aspire to live in a democracy,” she added.