The war between President Omar Bongo and the opposition press continued. Bongo did not hesitate to summon journalists if they were too critical of him. Censorship has not gone away.
President Bongo has been in power since 1967, knows the press well and understands how important it is. He is aware of the damage an independent press could do him. But he is also aware of the importance attached to freedom of expression and the effect a harsh crackdown would have on donors. So journalist were subjected to more insidious and discreet forms of pressure.
The government did not hesitate to spend a lot of money to buy newspapers or journalists. Communication minister Medhi Teale announced a grant of 500 million CFA francs (762,000 euros) for the independent news media on 3 May 2003, on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, but he explained that it would go only to those media that acted with "professionalism."
The authorities in August accused "many print media" of excesses and of "excelling in misinformation" and suggested the National Communication Council (CNC) might have to take measures to "ensure that the press functions appropriately." A few days later, the communication minister called on the news media to support the "social truce" by writing more "responsible" articles.
A few newspapers tried to denounce the government’s excesses. When parliament adopted a constitutional amendment on 29 July allowing President Bongo to run for re-election as often as he likes, some newspapers in Libreville voiced concern about the country’s future. The fortnightly La Sagaie wrote: "By turning Bongo into a President for Life, [the constitutional amendment] will consign Gabon to the category of republican monarchy for good." The newspaper also noted that, "Bongo has fiddled with the constitution five times since the return to a multi-party system in 1990." In its first number on 31 July, the fortnightly Sub-version headlined - referring to Omar Bongo - "Who after ’Mullah’ Omar?". On the other hand, L’Union, the only pro-governmental daily, wrote that this "historic day" had ushered in a "new era for our democracy and our country."
Four journalists detained
Abel Mimongo, Timothée Memey, Stanislas Boubanga and Chartrain of the fortnightly Sub-version were detained by the aviation and border police at Libreville airport on 17 September 2003 when they went to collect the copies of their newspaper, which is printed in neighbouring Cameroon. They were interrogated all morning, and Sub-version was accused of trying to stir up "insurrection" and "destabilise republican institutions."
Three journalists threatened
The home of Total Békalé, the president of the National Union of Radio and TV Journalists, was ransacked during the night of 16 January 2003. The next day, staff at the public service radio broadcaster Radio Gabon were told by an anonymous caller that their colleague Pierre Ndong Mvé had been killed, when in fact Mvé was safe and sound at home. Radio Gabon wondered what "the real motives for this bad joke" were while senior staff voiced concern about the threats that its journalists had been receiving for several months.
Blaise Itoumba, a correspondent for the fortnightly Misamu in the southern province Ngounié, was interrogated several times by the local authorities in May. A police officer told Itoumba to submit all his articles to him before sending them to his newspaper.
Catholic abbot Noël Ngwa Nguema, the founder of both the weekly Misamu and the fortnightly Sub-version, was the victim of constant harassment and intimidation. On 21 August, he was summoned by President Bongo, who personally threatened him. Both of Nguema’s newspaper published many articles that were very critical of Bongo.
Harassment and obstruction
"Agora," the only programme of debate on the public service TV channel RTG 1, was withdrawn on 7 February 2003 after presenter Ass Ndziengui hosted a debate the previous week on the reasons for the low turnout in the country’s elections and a guest blamed President Bongo. Communication minister Mehdi Teale went to RTG 1 a few hours after the debate was broadcast to obtain a videotape of the programme and to summon the presenter and some of the station’s executives to the president’s residence.
The National Communication Council (CNC) ordered the weekly Misamu to stop publishing on 12 May. Officially, this was because of an ownership dispute between Sen. Jean-Pierre Nzoghe Nguema, the former leader of an opposition party, and Abbot Noël Ngwa Nguema, the newspaper’s founder. But the order came after Misamu published a report accusing finance ministry secretary-general Eyamba Tsima Maurice Nestor of involvement in the death of an aide to Pascaline Bongo, the president eldest daughter and chief of staff.
The CNC closed down the weekly Le Temps on 15 May for three months because of a report about government financing for independence day ceremonies that was headlined: "More than 50 billion CFA francs splurged in two nights." The CNC said the report was "liable to undermine the nation’s credibility."
Communication minister Medhi Teale in August accused two fortnightlies, Sub-version and La Sagaie, of "violating the dignity of honest citizens." The following month, police confiscated the third issue of Sub-version on 17 September at the border with Cameroon, where it is printed, and detained four of its staff members. The CNC banned La Sagaie the next day, accusing it of appealing to tribalism and disturbing the peace, and accusing its journalists of trying to shirk their responsibilities by using pseudonyms.
In a lawsuit against the fortnightly Sub-version at the end of October, President Bongo and his wife, Edith Lucie Bongo, claimed that they had been insulted and demanded 300 million CFA francs (460,000 euros) in damages. The suit, which was due to be heard in March 2004, was prompted by an article in the 20 August issue that was headlined: "Edith Lucie Bongo: a political figure?"
Police at Libreville airport on 12 December seized all the copies of the second issue of L’Autre Journal, an independent fortnightly which had been started up the previous month and which was being printed in neighbouring Cameroon. The newspaper’s editor, Marco Boukoukou Boussaga, died three days in still unclear circumstances as a result of sudden haemorrhaging. Two days after that, on 18 December, the CNC announced that it was closing the newspaper down for an indefinite period because of the "libellous nature" of two articles in the first issue headlined, "President’s repeated and extended absences" and "Gabon pays salaries of Central African Republic’s civil servants." The CNC also claimed that the neither the newspaper nor its staff were properly registered.