One of our Gabonese Observers voices his concerns over the restrictions placed on journalists covering the presidential election.
The presidential election in Gabon takes place on Sunday. In the past few days, the government has taken some worrying steps concerning media coverage of the vote. Press freedom activists Reporters Without Borders have already predicted that the event is "likely to be heavily restricted"...
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Norbert Ngoua Mezui is secretary general of the Gabonese Media Observatory, a recently created media self-regulation association. He's also editor of fortnightly paper Nku'u Le messager. He spent three weeks in prison in 2006 for alleged defamation of the country's finance minister.
Journalists from two foreign media outlets, l'Express and FRANCE 24, were refused visas to follow the elections, while other journalists have been put up in grand hotels in the capital and can talk to whatever important person they want to. It's inconceivable. For the authorities, it seems that there is ‘good media' and ‘bad media'.
The decision that shocked me most was to ban journalists from entering polling stations. According to what the Interior Minister said on Thursday, following a decision by the council of ministers, journalists can only enter a polling station if they're following a candidate. And then they must leave. That was not the case in previous elections. So nobody will be monitoring the vote counting - which is supposed to be a public event according to Gabonese law. Nothing is there to prevent ballot fiddling. And then...
The press is relatively free in Gabon. It's not Ethiopia or Eritrea! We can talk about almost any subject - the poor quality of roads, corruption etc. We can criticise the government and its decisions. But there are limits. For example, the fortnightly Tango paper has been banned from publishing since August because the communication minister didn't appreciate their article on the election. However, only the national communication council has the legal right to disallow a publication from going to press. There are also taboo subjects, particularly those which directly affect the Bongo clan. If you directly attack the late president or his friends, you risk intimidation from the intelligence services, or a court case for defamation. We're in a transitional period and we don't know how things are going to turn out. But we've already seen a case of intimidation back in April when presidential candidate Bruno Ben Moubamba came back to the country and tried to launch an anti-corruption campaign. A number of journalists, me included, were called up by the intelligence services. And nobody published anything."