Reporters Without Borders wrote to President Nicolas Sarkozy on 19 November 2009 on the eve of his meeting in Paris with his visiting Gabonese counterpart, Ali Bongo, asking him to raise the issue of press freedom in their talks. This is the text of the letter:
Mr Nicolas Sarkozy
President of France
Palais de l'Elysée
Paris – France
Paris, 19 November 2009
Dear Mr President,
You are due to meet tomorrow with your Gabonese counterpart, Mr Ali Bongo. Reporters Without Borders would like to express its deep concern about the state of press freedom in Gabon and urges you to raise this issue in talks with you interlocutor.
In fact nine media have just been sanctioned by Gabon’s National Communications Council (CNC) which accused them of “wholesale relaying of public rumours” and writing articles “spreading ethnic divisions, insults and slander”.
We for our part consider that these sanctions are aimed only at penalising pluralist forms of expression. It is obvious that the new authorities do not accept that the results of the presidential elections should be commented on or that members of government and the ruling party should attract criticism.
The spokesman for the Minister of Foreign and European affairs minister said on 12 November in answer to a question about the CNC sanctions, “We underline the importance that France attaches to the principle of freedom of expression. It is one of the fundamental principles of any democracy”. This statement seems to us inadequate. Freedom of the press is not just a principle and France should, through you, ask the Gabonese president to observe it more fully.
Punishment of the nine media is just the latest in a worrying series of incidents. Several journalists found themselves in trouble with the authorities in the aftermath of the presidential election on 30 August, which the press had great difficulty in covering normally. Among them was the editor of the daily L'Union, Albert Yangari, who was questioned for several hours on 25 September. On the same day, police arrested the cartoonist, Patrick Essono, known as “Pahé”, and held him for nearly 48 hours. Very explicit death threats were also made against a journalist on L’Union, Jonas Moulenda, author of a report headlined “Je reviens de Port-Gentil" (I return from Port-Gentil), condemning the role of the military in a clampdown on post-election protests.
Omar Bongo governed Gabon for 41 years without allowing the press any breathing space. We believe it is the duty of France to persuade his successor, Ali Bongo, to choose change. That is why we would be grateful if you could insist with him on the need to protect journalists and to allow for criticism.
I trust that you will give this matter your careful consideration.
Picture : Nicolas Sarkozy and Ali Bongo (AFP/Eric Feferberg)