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Gabon27 May 2009

Government imposes news blackout on President Bongo’s health

Reporters Without Borders wrote yesterday to communication minister Laure Olga Gondjout and National Communication Council chairman Emmanuel Ondo Methogo voicing concern about the suspension of two Gabonese newspapers, Ezombolo and Le Nganga, and the warnings issued to Radio France Internationale (RFI) and the Canal Overseas Africa satellite TV service over their coverage of President Omar Bongo’s health.

“These actions are incomprehensible and unjustified,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said in his letter. “In our view, there are not sufficient grounds for a president’s health to be declared off-limits for the media. On the contrary, it is in the public’s interest to be informed about his health and the political consequences that would result from his post becoming vacant.”

The letter added: “We urge you to guarantee complete transparency in the coverage of current developments and to allow Ezombolo and Le Nganga to resume publishing.”

The decision to suspend Ezombolo (which appears irregularly) for six months and Le Nganga, a satirical weekly, for one month was taken at a specially-convened plenary session of the National Communication Council (CNC) on 23 May. It was prompted by their coverage of President Bongo’s hospitalisation in a private clinic near the Spanish city of Barcelona, and their articles speculating about his succession. The CNC is in charge of regulating the media.

Reporters Without Borders has a copy of a CNC press release that accuses the two newspapers of “trying to stir up public opinion” and “turning themselves into relays of the foreign press, thereby becoming local vehicles of disinformation.” It also accuses international radio and TV stations such as France 24, RFI, La Chaîne Info and I-Télé of “hounding the president and broadcasting non-official and alarmist reports.”

France 24 deputy news editor Albert Ripamonti told Agence France-Presse that the state-owned 24-hour TV news station had “maintained a balance between the reports indicating that President Bongo was in a serious condition and the Gabonese government’s statements that he was just having a checkup.”

Two France 24 journalists, Arnaud Zajtman and Marlène Rabaud, were deported from Gabon last night after been forced to wait in Libreville airport’s international arrivals area for 24 hours. They had visas issued by the Gabonese embassy in Kinshasa, where they are based, but did not have the communication ministry’s press accreditation.

Zajtman told Reporters Without Borders that officials at the Gabonese embassy did not ask him if he had the ministry’s press accreditation when he told them he was a journalist.



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