The measures confirm that the HAC, Gabon’s media regulator, is more interested in protecting the government’s interests than defending press freedom. Both media outlets recently criticized President Ali Bongo or his close allies. With the HAC in charge, critical reporting seems to result in almost automatic suspension.
The HAC announced on Wednesday 22 August that it was suspending France 2 broadcasts on all the satellite TV services available in Gabon for 12 months because it had broadcast a documentary that was “subversive” and “liable to disturb pubic order.”
Entitled “The Bongo clan, a French story,” the 52-minute documentary was broadcast in the France 2 current affairs slot “Complément d’Enquête” on 16 August, the eve of Gabon’s Independence Day. Using interviews and documentary evidence, it accused the Bongo family of getting rich from income from the French oil companies Elf Aquitaine and Total.
The HAC said it was suspending Echos du Nord for a month because it failed to respond to a summons for questioning about an article reporting that Gabon’s vice-president had bought a luxury car – an acquisition that the vice-president himself acknowledged after the article’s publication.
“The HAC has mistaken its mission and is discrediting itself,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “By suspending media outlets that cover public interest stories, it is defending the regime’s interests instead of defending the press freedom guaranteed by the constitution. This sends a disturbing signal to journalists who would like to do investigative reporting about the country’s most senior officials.”
In the six months since its creation, Gabon’s HAC has already suspended five media outlets, several of them arbitrarily. They include Média+, a local TV channel that was closed on 23 July for refusing to open its doors to HAC inspectors, as RSF reported at the time. It was allowed to resume broadcasting a few days later.
They also include the newspaper La Loupe, which was suspended for a month on 9 August for comments about government associates that were deemed “contrary to journalistic ethics.” Gabon’s Media Owners Organization (OPAM) reacted by accusing the HAC of “acting like a bogeyman” while RSF described the measure as “disproportionate.”
The HAC is a supposedly independent government offshoot that was created by government decree on 23 February to replace the National Council for Communication (CNC), for which there was constitutional provision. It has nine members, of whom seven are appointed by the executive and legislative authorities. Its president, Raphaël Ntoutoume Nkoghe, used to be President Bongo’s communication adviser and still apprears beside President Bongo on his Facebook profile.
Gabon is ranked 108th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index.